Having complained about Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona on Monday, I want to note he has the right take on Wednesday’s immigration announcement from the White House:
Broadly, there are three big questions in immigration policy: What kind of immigrants we should admit to the United States, how many of them we should admit, and how we should enforce against illegal immigration.
The proposal announced Wednesday by the White House and Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue seeks to address the first two questions.
On the first question, it would greatly reduce “chain migration,” which is admission based on familial links to US citizens, and instead emphasise skills. Potential immigrants would be awarded “points” for things like English proficiency, being of working age, holding an advanced degree or being offered a high salary by an American employer.
The applicants with the most points would be admitted. This is broadly similar to systems currently used in Canada and Australia.
CNN’s Jim Acosta was aghast at the idea that immigrants would be rated for English proficiency, suggesting this would result in just taking immigrants from the UK and Australia. But as Rich Lowry notes, there are 125 million English speakers in India alone. Lots of people around the world learn English as a second language, and this does not have to be a bar to diversity. Plus, the idea that English is central to American identity happens to be widely popular with voters across the political spectrum.
So, like Flake, I think a points system is all well and good. Immigrants who score high on these factors contribute the most to the US economy and are the easiest to integrate into US society. But that fact makes the other prong of the proposed White House policy puzzling: An overall reduction, by about half, of the number of green cards that may be issued each year.
Better-calibrated immigration policy should increase US capacity to take immigrants
Immigration restrictionists like to note that immigration is already at high levels compared to most of the US’s last 100 years. But Canada and Australia — the supposed immigration policy models that restrictionists point to — have more foreign-born residents as a share of their population today than the United States does.
When advocating for reductions in total immigration, restrictionists tend to point to practical problems created by immigration — for example, while immigration overall improves the finances of the federal government by generating more payroll tax revenue, it burdens the finances of certain state and local governments, which must provide services to immigrants with low incomes who pay few taxes.
But that problem is conditional: If the immigrants being admitted overwhelmingly tend to be prosperous and of working age, fiscal effects are no longer a reason to worry about the capacity of the United States to admit immigrants.
If we are improving our immigration policy to ensure we are admitting exactly the right immigrants, shouldn’t that make us inclined to admit more immigrants rather than less?
But some people just don’t like immigrants
Of course, some of the impulses to restrict immigration that animate the Trump administration are not purely economic, or even purely practical — and can therefore extend even to immigrants who make enormous economic and social contributions.
In 2015, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon complained on this radio show that “two-thirds of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or Asia, I think.” First of all, this isn’t close to true; HuffPost, which first reported the 2015 interview, cited a study showing that less than 14% of Silicon Valley executives are even of Asian descent. Second of all, so what if it were true? Well, Bannon says “a country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”
But this doesn’t necessarily have to be the view that drives the whole Trump administration. After all, Bannon’s guest in that segment was Donald Trump, who complained that it’s too hard for talented foreign students to remain in the US to work after graduating from elite American institutions.
“We have to be careful of that, Steve,” Trump said. “You know, we have to keep our talented people in this country.”
This proposal isn’t actually going to happen
Nothing very similar to the immigration proposal announced on Wednesday is going to become law. The segment of the country that holds Bannon-style views on immigration is simply too small. It would need 60 votes to pass the Senate; it will draw objection from all of the Democrats and many pro-immigration Republicans.
But it is possible to imagine a more moderate reshaping of immigration policy, reasserting the American prerogative to choose who immigrates here with an eye toward the national interest, without operating from a baseline assumption that immigration is bad and burdensome. This would be a policy that warmly welcomes large numbers of immigrants and chooses those immigrants deliberately — and that draws support from interest groups, like tech firms and hospital systems, that would find it easier to do business if they could more easily hire skilled workers from abroad.
Some of you will shout, “that was what the Gang of Eight bill did!” Well, yes and no.
One problem with the Gang of Eight bill, the bipartisan immigration reform plan backed by Flake that was blocked by House Republican leaders in 2013, was that it catered to the needs of American firms that wished to hire low-skilled foreign workers, in addition to those who wished to hire high-skilled ones. Though admitting high-skilled workers has good effects for American consumers — for example, by driving down the cost of services like medical care — the desirability of admitting low-skilled workers to compete for jobs is much more dubious.
Another problem was that the Gang of Eight bill created a path to citizenship for unauthorised immigrants that would have led to an enormous fraction of green cards — perhaps one-fifth of all the green cards issued over a period of decades — being granted not on the basis of merit, but based on who got here when, even without authorization. In large numbers, the bill would have allowed immigrants to choose the United States, instead of the other way around.
A third problem is that the federal government lacks credibility to insist that it will enforce immigration law effectively going forward, which is a key promise to make when you do a large amnesty for unauthorised immigrants. This credibility problem has only gotten worse since 2013, as Democrats have shifted so far left on immigration that many have come to treat enforcement as inherently illegitimate.
Hillary Clinton ran on a promise that she would not deport unauthorised immigrants unless they had criminal records — a position that is similar to having no immigration policy, and that does not inspire confidence that Democrats would seek to enforce whatever new immigration policy is adopted.
Republicans, who have protected employers from penalties for employing unauthorised workers, also do not inspire confidence about future enforcement. Even Trump, who has been eager for public shows of immigration enforcement, has yet to seriously take on employers.
The compromise that should, but won’t, be reached
Some sort of amnesty will eventually be necessary. But it will be more politically palatable — and may not have to cover as large a number of people — if the US first has its ducks in a row on immigration, with credible enforcement and a policy designed explicitly from the purpose of advancing a national interest.
A points system could be part of meeting that test. But to be politically viable and to be credible as “America First” policy, it should admit a lot more people than the Trump administration says it wants. Because, as Flake notes, the right immigrants provide great benefits to the American economy and American society.
I doubt we’ll end up there.
Too many people in Trump’s orbit are driven by Bannon-style concerns, disliking immigrants rather than wanting to optimise immigration. Too many establishment Republicans are driven by the concerns of business owners, who view downward pressure on low-skilled workers wages as a feature, not a bug.
And too many Democrats have come to essentially reject the idea of citizenship — viewing immigration as a moral imperative to immigrants, and therefore being uncomfortable with the idea that the US should select immigrants with a primary focus on the interests of existing American citizens.
But it’s where we should end up.
I support a merit-based system but I’m concerned that drastic cuts to legal immigration would run counter to the needs of our economy
— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) August 2, 2017
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