The Origins of Trump’s New Immigration Policy
In a White House speech on Wednesday, President Trump formally endorsed the RAISE Act, which would cut legal immigration in half, favor skilled over unskilled immigrants, and favor the spouses and children of U.S. citizens over more distant relatives. It would also eliminate the “visa lottery” that randomly allocates visas to countries that have not traditionally sent immigrants. The president was flanked by Senators Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.), the sponsors of the act (RAISE standing for Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy).
Although the RAISE Act reflects the long-held views of Trump supporters, such as his senior policy advisor Stephen Miller, the announcement came as a welcome surprise to many Trump voters. From the outset of his presidential campaign, Trump had promised to protect American workers with tough policies against illegal immigration, but he seemed unconcerned about the unprecedented level of legal immigration, which arguably was depressing American wages even more. When he promised to build a wall along the Mexican border, he also promised it would have a “big, very beautiful door” for “the legals to come back.” Although some of the president’s post-election speeches did make reference to a needed update in our approach to legal immigration, one never knew if he was simply reading the script or really planned to give it the same attention as health care and tax reform. That changed with yesterday’s speech.
Whether the president will have more luck with immigration reform than he has so far had with health care and tax reform remains to be seen. Within minutes of his speech, he was attacked both by Republicans who said their states would suffer labor shortages if legal immigration were reduced and leftist groups for whom “demographic change” has become an act of nature that can be opposed only by alt-right white nationalists.
Almost forgotten in the rejoicing and grousing is the not-so-distant origins of the RAISE Act reforms. Our current immigration predicament originated in 1965, when Congress ended immigration quotas that favored the Western European nations that had sent to America most of its original settlers and early immigrants. The 1965 law gave nearly every country the same quota and, within each country’s quota, gave preferences to relatives of U.S. citizens, including spouses, children, parents, and siblings. These changes were not expected to “open the floodgates”; indeed, the law’s sponsors assailed those who suggested they would do so.
Considering that a typical European immigrant in 1965 likely had only one sibling, and that sibling likely enjoyed a decent life, the law’s sponsors may perhaps be forgiven their insouciance towards floodgates. However, within a decade of the law’s enactment, a very different dynamic emerged. In dozens of the countries that now had “equal access” to immigrant visas, having five or more siblings was not uncommon, and the yawning difference between local and U.S. living standards was an irresistible magnet.
The right granted by the 1965 amendments to sponsor both the family you create (a spouse and children) as well as the family that created you (your parents and siblings) gave rise to Ponzi-like “chain migration,” especially from less developed countries, in which the anchor immigrant sponsors siblings who in turn sponsor spouses from the home country, who in turn have parents, siblings, and so on. Within a few decades some of the smallest Caribbean islands were sending more immigrants than some of the largest European countries. Waiting lists in some countries exceeded 20 years.
To its credit, Congress recognized during the late 1980s that the system ordained in 1965 had become dysfunctional and ordered the establishment of a Commission on Immigration Reform to fashion a solution. In the meantime, Congress increased the quotas to reduce the backlogs. Although this quota increase was seen as a temporary “fix” until the Commission could repair the system, it has remained in place for nearly two decades, triggering the largest flood of immigration in any nation’s history.
The Commission on Immigration Reform worked through the 1990s, formulating a number of recommendations, almost all of which are embodied in the RAISE Act. The Commission was bipartisan, was chaired by civil rights icon Barbara Jordan, and based its recommendations on the findings of several reports it had commissioned from the National Academy of Sciences, including studies of the economic impact of immigration on the labor market by George Borjas, a hispanic economics professor at Harvard. The bottom line on economic impact was simple—mass immigration was reducing American wages, businesses were benefitting from the cheap labor, but the net economic benefit to business was outweighed by the heavy fiscal costs of schooling and other government services utilized by low-income immigrant families.
The 1990s analysis of the National Academy was recently updated and summarized by Professor Borjas in a publically available “User’s Guide.” The bottom line, according to Borjas, has not changed. Immigration at current levels is still hurting American workers and imposing enormous fiscal costs (not to mention the pressures on our failing public schools and our crumbling infrastructure).
The Jordan Commission’s recommendations came from sources whose integrity, bipartisanship, and qualifications were unimpeachable and would be hard to reassemble in today’s toxic political environment. That should be taken into account in evaluating the provisions of the RAISE Act that originated with the Jordan Commission: namely, that we should continue allowing Americans to sponsor foreign spouses and their minor children, we should continue to accept our fair share of refugees who have no other safe place to live, and, as for the rest, we should admit the few who are so highly skilled and educated that they will compete for work only with the toffs who voted for Hillary Clinton and not with the blue-collar men and women who put their faith in Donald Trump.
William W. Chip serves on the Board of the Center for Immigration Studies, based in Washington, D.C.