After spending much time and energy as a candidate and president descrying immigration, Donald Trump now wants Americans to believe immigrants are good for our country. On Thursday, the president touted a new immigration plan put together by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a man with little experience on the issue, and his adviser Stephen Miller, who has plenty of experience, albeit of a particularly nasty, xenophobic variety. The plan, which has yet to be formalized into proposed legislation, would dramatically change the way immigrants could gain entry to the United States, moving away from a policy that awarded preference to newcomers who already had family ties with individuals living here to one that would rely on a narrowly defined merit system. The effect would be to keep out most Latino and many Asian immigrants, especially those who lack college or advanced degrees. It would also simply ignore the fate of the million or so young people brought to the country illegally as children, the DACA recipients, as well as the larger population of undocumented immigrants, two-thirds of whom have lived in the U.S. for more than a decade.
Not surprisingly, no one — not even the president’s allies in Congress — is very enthusiastic about this proposal. And the plan is dead on arrival in the Democrat-controlled House. In a normal administration, such a plan would have been developed in coordination with at least a handful of senators and representatives, who could be expected to shepherd legislation through Congress. But this administration doesn’t do things normally and would rather put on a show that wins the president applause from his base than actually get something done. Nonetheless, the exercise does initiate a discussion that needs exploring. How should we allocate visas that allow people to come to the United States to live and work?
Modern immigration policy, which began in 1965 with the Immigration and Nationality Act, has used ties to U.S.-based family members as the primary mechanism to allot permanent resident status. Of the approximately 1 million people who receive permanent status each year — which allows them to live indefinitely in the U.S., work and after a period of five years, apply to become citizens — nearly 90% were related to someone already here, mostly spouses, parents, children and, in fewer cases, siblings. Many other nations, including Canada, which has a vibrant immigrant policy, prefer a system based on skills, education and, in some instances, wealth, which is the direction that Trump seems to want to follow. There is nothing wrong with a skills-based system per se; the devil is in the details of the Trump plan.
If Trump’s plan were enacted as proposed, we’d offer resident status to many more scientists, engineers and mathematicians, especially if they were from countries like Norway — which the president has bemoaned sends too few immigrants to America. But unless we expected those highly skilled people to take jobs milking cows, picking crops, cleaning buildings and processing chickens, many of the industries that most need workers would still face labor shortages. And of course, the primary reason we have few immigrants from Norway and other northern European countries is that people who live in those places are quite content to stay there and enjoy, in some cases, a higher standard of living — not to mention free health care and higher education — than we do.
But the fallacious assumptions of the Trump plan shouldn’t discourage those interested in an immigration policy that benefits the U.S. economy from considering alternatives that still emphasize skills. There is nothing wrong with wanting those who come here to have skills that allow them to get jobs quickly and to move up the economic ladder the longer they are here. Nor is it wrong to suggest that learning at least some English before immigrating is a good thing that will enhance job opportunities even for lower-skilled immigrants. Nor is there anything inherently wrong with suggesting that those who want to settle here permanently should know something about American history or civics. As long as we make available what we expect prospective immigrants to know when they apply to come here and we administer tests fairly and uniformly, testing as part of a visa application could produce more immigrants who will succeed here.
The problem with the administration’s proposals is that they appear designed to exclude immigrants from certain countries, not attract immigrants we actually need, including those who have less formal education but a strong work ethic and motivation. Reluctantly, Trump and company are now realizing that we need immigrants to the United States. The country isn’t “full,” as the president suggested just weeks ago. News that American birthrates fell to a 32-year low last year suggests that our economic future is imperiled by an aging workforce that will stifle economic growth. Rethinking immigration policy is the right thing to do. Now it’s up to Congress to carry on the job with a better plan than the president offers.