ANALYSISBorders and migration

Leave Immigration Alone Instead of Making It Worse

The status quo isn’t ideal, but it’s better than the House Republican plan.

Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton
Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton – He, among others, has a plan for immigration reform. It’s not good.


With tax reform out of the way, immigration looks like it might be next up on the legislative agenda. Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress are contemplating measures that would be bad for both the U.S. economy and its international standing. Interestingly, however, President Donald Trump shows signs of a willingness to deal.

The House Republican bill is a strongly nativist piece of legislation. Traditionally, Republicans have focused on illegal immigration — increasing border security and deporting those who are in the country without authorization. Some have also sought to shift the U.S. immigration system from one that prizes family reunification to one that emphasizes job skills, reflecting the traditional Republican concern that low-skilled immigrants will consume more welfare services. This latter idea is the focus of the RAISE Act, a bill introduced by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton.

The House GOP bill, in contrast, contains no provision for a skilled immigration system. And although it does increase border security and crack down on cities and employers that shelter undocumented immigrants, it goes way beyond the illegal immigration issue. The bill would end family reunification immigration for everyone but spouses and minor children — people could no longer bring their parents, adult children or siblings IGNORE INTO the country. And it would end the green-card lottery program, which gives out 50,000 visas a year to people from countries that don’t send many migrants to the U.S.

Read Also: Trump, DACA, and the Wall

In both substantive and symbolic terms, this would be a big step back for the U.S. The diversity visa lottery program is small, and is therefore not that important to the economy — ending it, however, broadcasts an image of a nation that has closed its doors to the world. Border security, at this point, wouldn’t have much of an effect on immigration numbers, since net illegal immigration effectively ended a decade ago:

Increased efforts at deportation, meanwhile, threatens to make much of the country feel more like a police state — already, examples of abuses by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency are widespread.

But the biggest change would be the curbs on family reunification immigration, to which Republicans have now assigned the more ominous-sounding epithet of “chain migration.” Disallowing young working people from bringing their elderly parents to live with them would discourage many talented foreigners from coming to work in the U.S. And barring older residents from bringing in their adult children would deprive the U.S. of young workers at a time when it needs them to sustain its pension and Social Security systems.

Meanwhile, choking off family reunification wouldn’t do nearly as much to improve the immigrant skill mix as restrictionists believe. With net illegal immigration dramatically reduced or stopped, the average education level of foreign-born residents has been rising steadily:

The GOP immigration bill, therefore, would probably hurt the American economy a bit. But it would also go against the tide of public opinion: President Trump, meanwhile, has shown some signs of being willing to strike a more reasonable stance. He has entertained the idea of a path to citizenship for many unauthorized immigrants. Meanwhile, the administration has nixed a proposal to force skilled workers to leave the country while applying for green cards — a bizarre idea that would have dealt a serious blow to skilled immigration.

Let’s hope a combination of Democratic opposition in the Senate and a more conciliatory Trump can prevent the GOP from turning U.S. immigration policy in a nativist direction. There is absolutely no reason to restrict legal immigration at this time. The U.S. needs skilled immigrants to maintain dominance in high-value industries. It also needs their tax revenues to help fill government coffers, allowing the government to pay for health care, pensions and retirement benefits for the native-born:

The current system, centered around family reunification, isn’t optimal, but it’s not terrible either. It’s certainly not hurting the country. The best move would be to simply shift the immigration system to one that gives greater priority to workers with the highest skill levels. Combining that with increased border security and a path to citizenship for unauthorized workers — a deal that presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush tried repeatedly to make — would be even better.

But if none of those improvements can make it through an increasingly nativist GOP Congress, the best alternative is to simply leave the immigration system as it is. With mass illegal immigration having come to an end, foreign-born education levels rising steadily, and increasing public support for immigration, there’s just no pressing need for big changes to the system. U.S. leaders should strongly resist the nativist impulse.

By Noah Smith

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