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Donald Trump Has a Point on Immigration

Donald Trump may be nearly the last person at CPAC from whom I would expect a sound idea. His recent contributions to public debate have in the main been noisy dog whistle appeals to racialism and xenophobia, couched in concerns about President Obama’s birth certificate. The impact of these has been nil, apart from making the country more partisan and any sort of governing “vital center” harder to reach. But I couldn’t resist clicking when confronted with Josh Marshall’s snarky headline [1] on TPM: “Trump: Send us your white people.” 

While it was a important concern of mine during the 1990s, the immigration issue has largely ceased to interest me. Recently I’ve written about it [2] mostly to suggest that multiculturalism may well play into paleoconservative foreign policy preferences–and that the neoconservatives may have shot themselves in the foot in their efforts to purge immigrations restrictionists (reformers, they used to be called) in the 1990s.

But if one watches the news, it’s difficult to ignore the GOP’s fumbling on the issue, the  seemingly complete inability of its leaders and spokesmen to find anything positive, forceful or compelling to say. One immigration restrictionist who plays a prominent role in the Washington debate told me recently that GOP congressmen and senators are like deer in the headlights, casting around blindly for the position that will do them the least political harm. And despite the apparent importance of the issue to their party, virtually none of them have done any homework to understand it.

Enter, in his characteristic way, Donald Trump. Anyone in the restaurant and hotel business, which Trump very much is, employs a lot immigrants. My surmise is his attention to immigration law is average for the sector: that is, he will do what he can get away with to hire the best people he can at the lowest wages. In his talk to CPAC he was blunt: the 11 million illegal immigrants who everyone talks about giving a path to legalization are mostly going to become Democrats. That didn’t stop him from saying–almost in a whisper, that of course “we’ve got to do the right thing”–which meant providing the illegals a path to a green card.

But then he said something else. He began talking about the difficulty of immigrating to the U.S. from Europe by the highly educated. Of course he used over the top examples–the brilliant student at Harvard, Wharton, etc, who wasn’t going to work as an illegal alien and couldn’t find a way to work here legally. Such people exist, but are a small relative number. But there’s an important point here, one that that Republicans should jump on. The immigration issue isn’t entirely what to do about the estimated 10-12 million illegal aliens living here “in the shadows.” That’s part of it. But the more important part–entirely ignored by the current GOP (and by Democrats as well, but since immigration is a GOP problem, their ignorance is more critical) is legal immigration.

The essentials of that system haven’t been changed substantially since the 1960s. There are ways to get legally into the country as a refugee, a visa lottery winner, a spouse, or with some sort of professional visa, and perhaps some others. But the largest path to legal citizenship remains nepotism–that is being a relative of someone already here. And that means that “chain immigration”–first generation immigrants bringing in their siblings and parents and in-laws–has priority and largely monopolizes the slots for legal immigration. If your ancestors came here from Italy or Ireland a hundred or more years ago, you are not likely to have many close relatives in the old country who are visa eligible. If you came more recently from Mexico or Nigeria, you surely do. When I first figured this out–while researching an article for Fortune in the late 1980s, I was astonished. So were my editors. But that’s the way it is.

What Trump said, which TPM found so outlandishly amusing, is that educated Europeans ought to have some legal way to immigrate. Yes, I know they do, they can–hire attorneys, finagle some sort of work visa, and then–more legal fees–extend it. But it’s a hassle, and often doesn’t work. Trump said we should let more of the educated in. He’s right. But why not go further, and make education and skills a primary–rather than secondary–way of deciding who should become a legal immigrant? It’s not an especially radical idea: David Brooks touched on the logic [3] of choosing what qualities we should seek in legal immigrants in a 2007 column. Canada and Australia have non-nepotism based systems of choosing legal immigrants.

The point is not that Donald Trump’s criteria or David Brooks’s criteria are necessarily correct, but that the GOP should seek to expand the debate from the limiting and internally divisive parameters where it is now confined. In return for giving the illegal aliens a path to citizenship, couldn’t the GOP acquire some influence over the qualities America seeks in legal immigrants, likely to be even larger over the next generation?

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#1 Comment By jacobus On March 18, 2013 @ 1:19 pm

“But why not go further, and make education and skills a primary–rather than secondary–way of deciding who should become a legal immigrant?”

i.e.,

We’ve already brought down the wages of low-skill workers to poverty levels through immigration. Time to start doing the same for higher skill workers (of course, we’re already doing that through HB-1s: [4] )

#2 Comment By JJM On March 18, 2013 @ 1:25 pm

Believe it or not, but choosing who gets to immigrate to your country, and generally choosing well off, educated people over refugees and day laborers, is what the whole rest of the world does. And for good reason; it’s good policy! I dare any one of those “the US is a terrible racist place for enforcing borders” people to try to get permanent residency anywhere in Europe. Or East Asia. Or any other place that has even a passing semblance of a social security system.

#3 Comment By VikingLS On March 18, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

Having just been through the process of getting a greencard for my wife I can assure you even if if you marry a US citizen it is a long and expensive process.

#4 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 18, 2013 @ 1:39 pm

The problem is, even a spouse or child immigrating can entail many years, already. As for parents or brothers and sisters, it can be decades. There is a reason that family unification has to remain a part. There are backlogs of years as well, for all categories except for fast track corporate sponsorship (as usual corporations are super-persons and have a special status unavailable to anyone else) because the immigration bureaucracy is so underfunded and inefficient – and heavily politicized. Immigrants who have applied and passed citizenship, with decisions by law supposed to take no more than 120 days, sometimes wait 7 years or more.
The system is broken – but restrictionists want it that way.

#5 Comment By tz On March 18, 2013 @ 3:38 pm

How about selecting for those who do not want to become leeches upon the US Taxpayer, whether they be the elite relatives. At least the illegals work. Do we need more John Corzines or Jamie Diamons to blow things up and get bailouts?

I have a simple idea. Require a sponsor. Someone who will put up $100k in assets into an escrow account and be responsible for any fees, fines, penalties, or debts the immigrant incurs (with unlimited liability, harder to get rid of than student loan debt). They are to be considered accessories of any crimes they commit. We get rid of the DOMA married or not problem (if you put up your house, it isn’t a sham marriage, or for your brother, cousin, or neice). The Catholic Church can sponsor as many or as few as they desire or can afford.

#6 Comment By JB On March 18, 2013 @ 4:05 pm

VikingLS, my wife and I found it to be a quick and easy process.

We were married and then, five months later, we simultaneously submitted her application for an immigrant visa and her petition for adjustment of status (i.e., application for conditional permanent residency). Four months later, we had our interview and she was issued the immigrant visa and conditional permanent residency. We were surprised!

We were told that, 22 months after that, we should apply to adjust her status to that of UN-conditional permanent resident.

We’ve had a lot of bad experiences with the government at all levels, but this was not one of them. (Except that we are galled that hundreds of thousands of Mexicans simply walk across our border illegally at will every year, while we had to fill out forms and pay $1,500 in fees (so far).)

#7 Comment By Gaeranee On March 18, 2013 @ 4:42 pm

There should be an express path to citizenship for PhD students and MD students.

#8 Comment By M_Young On March 18, 2013 @ 4:48 pm

“Believe it or not, but choosing who gets to immigrate to your country, and generally choosing well off, educated people over refugees and day laborers, is what the whole rest of the world does. ”

The rest of the white world does. China, India, Japan, Korea simply don’t allow any significant amount of immigration (except for ‘overseas’ co-ethnics), whether skilled or unskilled. The exceptions are Singapore (which nevertheless still tries to maintain a Han numerical majority) and maybe Hong Kong.

#9 Comment By M_Young On March 18, 2013 @ 4:52 pm

“As for parents or brothers and sisters, it can be decades. ”

Why should they have a presumptive right to immigrate to the US at all? Many, if not most, Americans live hundreds of miles from their parents and/or adult siblings. Immigrants chose to immigrate — we shouldn’t be obligated to take in their relatives too.

#10 Comment By Annek On March 18, 2013 @ 7:54 pm

Scott, I don’t know where you’ve been but I’m aware of many conservatives who have talked about the problems with legal immigration and how we should use skills and education as criteria for immigration to our country over nepotism. This idea really needs to get out there more.

#11 Comment By M_Young On March 19, 2013 @ 11:01 am

“There should be an express path to citizenship for PhD students and MD students.”

People who follow the immigration issue know there is no ‘shortage’ of PhD’s, [5]. Current PhD’s are laboring longer and longer as post-Docs with most in academia not getting a secure, permanent position until their late 30s. Not exactly good for the reproduction of our own ‘best and brightest’.

#12 Comment By cka2nd On March 19, 2013 @ 5:07 pm

Mr. McConnell seems to be channeling Frank Luntz: Let’s take a concept that is well-known under a historically positive name (“Family Reunification” – see Wikipedia – and “Estate Tax”) and give it bad press and negative conotations by slapping a new (or old and inappropriate) name on it (“Nepotism” and “Death Tax”).

And Annek is correct, sir, that a preferenace for education and skills in legal immigration over family re-unification is hardly unknown in conservative circles. The economic elite fairly love the idea and it has been featured in virtually every immigration reform proposal I’ve heard about in Congress over the last 10+ years.

I think you are incorrect about sponsoring in-laws, although if one’s spouse becomes a citizen, he or she may then sponsor their parents as parents.

By the way, is family re-unification not a “family value?”

Some progressives who are not “Open Borders” hardliners have argued that making legal immigration an easier process will cut illegal immigration.