As a candidate, Donald Trump was given to bold policy proposals that he assured supporters he would enact once taking office. “We’re gonna do it,” he’d typically tell campaign crowds. But unlike many politicians, who, for better or worse, scale back ambitions after getting elected, President Trump has actually proposed the kind of sweeping, radical changes that he promised on the campaign trail. That’s probably one reason why he remains popular among his core supporters but is simultaneously having a tough time accomplishing anything that requires Congress’s approval. The new legal-immigration reform plan that Trump announced on Wednesday exemplifies the problem and may represent another missed opportunity.
The plan includes a sensible pitch to reconfigure U.S. visa policies to reflect what most First World, industrialized nations have already done: give priority to skilled immigrants likely to succeed in the modern economy. This would mark a break with our current system, where most immigrants are granted entry based on family ties. But Trump would also cut legal immigration in half at a time when the country’s unemployment rate is below 5 percent, a proposal that could prompt strong opposition from moderate Republican senators whose votes are needed to pass any package, as well as from business groups that might otherwise be enthusiastic about a skills-based immigration system. Not surprisingly, Trump’s backing of a severe reduction in legal-immigration levels has generated most of the headlines in stories.
Fixing our legal-immigration system was never going to be easy, but the effort is worth it—the payoff is potentially enormous. A decade ago, John McCain and Ted Kennedy produced a bill that proposed moving to a skills-based system. Though the measure ultimately died because it also included a controversial path to amnesty for illegals, even the bipartisan approach to a new legal system based on merit was divisive. Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both objected to the bill, claiming that moving away from a family-based immigration system was contrary to America values. Today, the notion persists that emphasizing skills over family is somehow un-American, and separates families.
Given that history, Trump was always going to have to rely principally on keeping his own party members together to accomplish any immigration reform. Congressional Democrats have already shown that they remain united in opposition to Trump, and the party today sees immigration not as an area where policies need to be crafted in the national interest, but as a recruiting tool. For the Democrats, in other words, the more expansive the policy, the better. Republicans in Congress, however, are hardly unified. The party encompasses a range of right-leaning interests on immigration, from business groups that don’t want to see the flow of newcomers severely reduced to blue-collar workers worried about disappearing jobs to culture warriors troubled by the increasingly slow assimilation of immigrants into American society.
If Trump has any chance of bringing this diverse group together, it’s with an argument that recognizes the benefits of immigration to the economy and specific industries but also acknowledges that our current system based on family ties is outdated and bad for our most vulnerable workers. Some two-thirds of those currently gaining legal entry come through family ties, or “chain migration,” and these newcomers are typically lower-skilled and command lower wages. As the American economy has become more knowledge-based, with jobs growing ever more sophisticated, unskilled workers have struggled to gain an economic footing and assimilated more slowly than better-skilled workers. The large number of unskilled immigrants also drives down wages for the lowest earners. As Harvard economist George Borjas recently observed, “Since more than a quarter of America’s recent immigrants lack even a high-school diploma or its equivalent, immigration particularly hurts the least-educated native workers, the very people who are already struggling the most. America’s immigration system, in other words, pits two of the groups liberals care about most—the native-born poor and the immigrant poor—against each other.”
Shifting to a system that emphasizes immigrants with skills, which has generated demonstrable benefits in other countries, notably Australia, changes this dynamic. As Australia’s experience shows, new arrivals with skills assimilate and succeed economically more quickly. Of course, any new competition for jobs potentially puts a downward pressure on wages, but there’s evidence that America needs workers with skills far more than it needs new waves of unskilled laborers.
At the same time, the administration must answer the charge that shifting away from a family-based system would somehow “separate” families. Under Trump’s proposed skills-based system, an individual who gains entry can bring along a spouse and minor children. Once those new immigrants establish legal residence here, though, they no longer would be able to bring over parents or adult brothers and sisters and their families, as current law allows. Since any new applicant for a visa would know this in advance, the policy hardly amounts to splitting up families.
Moreover, our family-based system, poorly thought out in the first place, has driven immigration policy in directions that Congress never anticipated. The extended-family policy created such demand for visas that, starting in the mid-1960s, Congress began a steady increase in immigration levels, seeking to cut down the long waiting list of applicants. But as Washington lifted the number of legal visas, that list has never grown shorter: the new visas have merely attracted more applicants. Thus, America went from legal immigration of 296,697 annually in 1965 to 524,295 by 1980 to more than 1 million today. It’s safe to say that our legal immigration currently reflects no informed notion of a proper level of visas. Rather, those levels are a reflection of political pressures generated by a system that produced far more demand than originally intended.
Still, any appeal that Trump’s immigration plan might have to moderate Republicans and business groups is undercut by its dramatic reduction in immigration levels. The plan’s skills-based approach, for instance, wouldn’t add new visas for these workers, but merely reallocate 140,000 employment visas already available to workers. Meantime, the Trump proposal would, by ending visas for relatives beyond the nuclear family, eventually cut as many as 500,000 legal immigrants a year. That’s why the plan can be described by critics as restrictionist—and why it will struggle to gain enough Republican votes to pass. There’s little doubt that shifting America toward a merit-based immigration system would have a positive impact on our economy and our culture. For that to happen, though, Trump will need to find common ground with his own party.
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