Donald Trump

Trump Leads GOP in Turn Against Legal Immigration

The president's plan would slash legal immigration by as much as half, the most drastic cut in nearly a century.


Ben Von Klemperer/CrowdSpark/Newscom

One of the big moments in the phenomenally popular musical Hamilton, which has been running on Broadway for more than two years, is titled "Immigrants—We Get the Job Done." In the debate over new federal legislation, a response is being heard: "Get it done somewhere else."

Many people have long decried illegal immigration while claiming to have no problem with legal immigration. The complaints about undocumented foreigners are familiar: "Why can't they follow the rules? Why don't they get in line and wait their turn like everyone else? Why should they be rewarded for breaking the law?"

The simple answer is that we make it too hard to immigrate, even as our economy depends on the labor of immigrants, legal or otherwise. If the goal is to induce more aspirants to come through legitimate channels, we should be working to expand and simplify those channels.

That's not what Donald Trump proposes. His plan provides legal status and a lengthy path for citizenship for up to 1.8 million people who are eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. In exchange, though, the president wants to sharply restrict family-based immigration.

The bill he favors would change the law to bar naturalized citizens from petitioning to bring their parents, adult or married children, and siblings. Only spouses and children under age 18 (down from the current 21) would be eligible.

Trump also wants to abolish the diversity visa lottery, which takes up to 50,000 people each year from countries that are underrepresented in other categories. He would limit refugee admissions, which numbered 85,000 in 2016, to an annual maximum of 45,000.

In all, his plan would slash legal immigration by as much as half, the most drastic cut in nearly a century. On Wednesday, Trump threatened to veto any bill that doesn't include such limits.

It is not just the president's policy to target prospective immigrants who are willing to use approved avenues. It's now the agenda of his party. The bill he favors is sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and endorsed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Trump says his changes would "curb the flow of low-skilled workers into the U.S." In fact, as the Migration Policy Institute notes, close to half of adult immigrants who have come here legally since 2011 have a bachelor's degree, compared with one-third of native-born Americans 25 or older. Though Trump wonders why we take people from "shithole countries" in Africa, 40 percent of African immigrants are college graduates.

His allies profess a desire to boost "merit-based" immigration. But this measure would actually reduce the flow of high-skilled workers. "If you are thinking about the number of college graduates who would be getting green cards each year, that number would go down" under Trump's plan, MPI analyst Julia Gelatt told The Atlantic.

Why would we want to close off half the legal stream of immigrants? Economists generally see them as a net plus. Trump and his allies insist that the new arrivals depress wages. But the effect, if any, is small. And the newcomers stimulate investment, create employment by buying goods and services, fill jobs that few Americans want, and help revive poor neighborhoods that have lost residents.

The benefits are not accidental. Immigrants don't land here by accident to be transported to Shangri-La on a feather bed. The people who come are self-selected for motivation, resilience and industry.

They leave their home countries because they think they will have greater opportunities to make full use of their talents and ambitions here. And Americans of all income and skill levels gain from their presence.

Trump routinely equates foreigners with danger, drugs, and crime. But reducing the influx of legal immigrants, who are far less likely than natives to go to prison, would do nothing to make Americans safer. Just the opposite.

Though Republicans revere Ronald Reagan, Trump and his allies in Congress are repudiating his heritage without apology.

"Our nation is a nation of immigrants," Reagan said in 1981. "More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands." He favored a policy that "opens the door of opportunity for those who seek a new life in America."

That sentiment seems to be on its way to extinction in his party. Even when it comes to foreigners who choose to come legally, Trump is not into opening doors. He's into putting up walls.