Rethinking America

Trump’s Immigration Plan: Sound Start for Compromise

Trump’s proposed immigration plan does provide a starting point to accomplish an ultimate compromise that would better serve the national interests.

Credit: Gage Skidmore www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • Trump's proposed immigration plan provides a starting point to accomplish an ultimate compromise that would better serve the national interests.
  • Out of a US population of 326 million, 45 million are immigrants. One-quarter is in the country illegally. That number has hardly changed in recent years.
  • Immigrants to the US tend to be concentrated among two groups: The elderly and those with less than a high school education, and those with more than a four-year college education.
  • In an economy hard pressed by import competition and rapidly turning to robotics and artificial intelligence, immigrants exacerbate competition for jobs and downward pressure on wages.

As promised in the recent budget negotiations, the Senate is engaged in an open debate on the status of the so-called Dreamers and broader immigration reform and enforcement. The Dreamers are the young adults who were illegally brought into the United States as children by their parents.

Out of a U.S. population of 326 million, 45 million are immigrants. One-quarter is in the country illegally. That number has hardly changed in recent years.

Declining birth rates in Mexico and elsewhere, better employment opportunities created by free-trade agreements and stronger law enforcement inside the United States have slowed the inflow even before Trump became president.

U.S. vs. Canada

Canada faces challenges similar to ours — falling birth rates, skill shortages and a society defined by waves of immigrants from Europe and Asia. However, Canada wisely places a much higher priority on employment needs in granting visas.

Canadians broadly embrace immigration as a positive force. The country has also absorbed 35,000 Syrian refugees and experienced an anti-Muslim backlash in some communities, arguably similar to the cultural ambivalence in U.S. communities that supported Trump in 2016.

Overall, the difference between Canada’s and the United States’ levels of acceptance appear to hinge on differences in the proportions of skilled and easily assimilable immigrants.

U.S. rules are complex, but about 65% of U.S. visas are granted based on family ties, whereas only 15% are based on employment. The remainder is mostly through a lottery for under-represented countries and refugees.

Two groups

Immigrants to the United States tend to be concentrated among two groups: On the one hand are the elderly and those with less than a high school education.

The other group consists of those with more than a four-year college education. These new arrivals are often doing jobs that not enough Americans are trained to do in fields such as information technology, science and engineering or requiring other advanced degrees.

Overall, the U.S. immigrant population tends to be considerably older and less educated and employable than the native-born population. That imposes large burdens on the social safety net. About half qualify for means-tested programs such as food stamps.

In an economy hard pressed by import competition and rapidly turning to robotics and artificial intelligence, immigrants exacerbate competition for jobs and downward pressure on wages for native Americans with a high school education or less, even as highly skilled immigrants benefit the economy overall.

Trump’s proposal: Part very sound, part unsound

Trump’s proposal would increase visas for skilled immigrants, end chain immigration by limiting family visas to spouses and minor children, end the lottery and establish a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers. Those are all very sound demands.

Trump is also demanding funds for a wall along the southern border and other measures to bolster enforcement and security. In many places along the border, the idea of a wall is opposed even among many of his conservative supporters.

Farmers and ranchers understand that physical barriers are often not as effective or cost efficient as investments in high-tech surveillance and other deterrents.

The legislative game ahead

Compromises offered by moderates in Congress generally water down Trump’s proposals to end the lottery system and chain immigration.

However, unless a politician or immigration advocate can justify our current national practice of “green-card bingo” or prove conclusively that an immigrant’s first cousin, through a visa granted to his aunt or grandmother, is worthy of special preference over an electrical engineer, one conclusion ought to be abundantly clear: The lottery and present family-reunification rules are difficult to justify on grounds of economic benefits and easing social tensions.

Conclusion

That is why Trump would be well-advised to moderate his demands for physical barriers and compromise with the Democrats on the other issues.

For example, he should accept a focused program to foster skills-based immigration from under-represented countries in exchange for strict limits on family reunification and ending the lottery, as recently suggested by a bipartisan group of 48 lawmakers.

Conservatives, for their part, are balking at establishing a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers. That may prove to be an equally unsustainable position.

On that basis, an immigration deal can be had. It would be a good immigration reform serving the interests of all Americans, not just those of the powerful and privileged.

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About Peter Morici

Peter Morici is a professor of international business at the University of Maryland in College Park. [United States]

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