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
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
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
The proposal announced Wednesday by the White House and
Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue seeks to address the first
On the first question, it would greatly reduce “chain
migration,” which is admission based on familial links to
US citizens, and instead emphasize 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
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
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
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
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
“We have to be careful of that, Steve,” Trump said. “You
know, we have to keep our talented people in this
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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
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
Another problem was that the Gang of Eight bill
created a path to citizenship for unauthorized 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 unauthorized 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
unauthorized 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 unauthorized 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
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
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 optimize
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.