Trump's 'Reckless' Legal Immigration Policy Could Hurt the Economy

An expert weighs in on a conservative bill endorsed by the president.
August 3, 2017, 4:00am
Photo by Zach Gibson - Pool/Getty Image

Donald Trump has been denouncing illegal immigration ever since he began his campaign for the presidency two years ago, but amid all the talk of building walls and deporting undocumented immigrants, it has often gone unnoticed that some in Trump's orbit wanted to restrict legal immigration as well. That tendency came to the forefront this week, as Trump endorsed a bill from Republican senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue of Georgia that would cut in half the number of immigrants let into the country legally—including a cap on refugees—while changing the rules to favor would-be immigrants who speak English and have useful skills.


Trump maintains that low-skill immigrants take jobs from American citizens, but many economists think that a drastic restriction on immigration could result in an economic slowdown, since immigrants are often young workers.

It's unclear if this bill—nicknamed the RAISE Act—has much of a chance of passing, especially given all the other priorities in Congress. But it indicates where the Trump administration's stands, and that should worry immigration advocates and people outside the US hoping to come to America.

To sort through the consequences of the bill, I spoke by phone and email with Donald Kerwin, director of the Center for Migration Studies.

VICE: So how would this bill change the immigration system?
Donald Kerwin: Under our current system, most of the permanent residents come in through family-based connections of a US citizen or a lawful permanent resident. In any given year, it's around two-thirds [of total immigration]. The next-largest category are people who are admitted based on an employment visa, and so there's a particular job they're coming to do. What this bill is proposing to do is to limit family-based immigration to what they call immediate families: the spouses and minor children of US citizens and lawful permanent residents.

On the employment side, they'd move to what they're calling a skills-based points system. The way point systems work is that rather than have an employer sponsor you for a visa based on a particular job, people are admitted based on a variety of categories—it could be things like English language ability, education level, a job offer, their age could be relevant, other factors along those lines. Those kinds of systems exist in other places, but we haven't had a point system in the United States.


Do those systems have advantages?
It depends. Some people think there are advantages in a point system in terms of greater flexibility, but the danger with them is that generally, it's not about employment sponsorship. So you could potentially bring in people who have significant skills but they might be under-employed, or they might not actually have a job. I'd imagine that they would try to address that in the legislation, but that's one of the problems with systems like this in other places.

Why are liberals and others who favor more immigration worried about this bill?
One point that would be very troubling is the limitation on family-based immigration. These are people who oftentimes are in the labor force contributing to Social Security and other retirement benefits, and are younger as well—we're facing this demographic challenge of baby boomers retiring. I think people might ask, OK, so you're favoring skilled migration, but don't small businesses that aren't bringing in highly paid workers or can't afford to pay people huge amounts, don't they need workers as well? I should say that they're often not lower-skilled but lower-credentialed. In other words, they're very skilled the workers; it's just that their education levels might be low, and they've learned on the job. That's true for a lot of construction workers, for example. Immigrants disproportionately fill the jobs in a number of these industries, and you wouldn't want to threaten that because that would be obviously bad for the economy.


It's not that there aren't US workers willing to do some of this [unskilled] work; it's that there aren't sufficient US workers willing to do this work. You're not admitting lots of unskilled workers to start with, there are very few legal channels for them to come in, and now you're actually restricting it even more. If you're restricting family-based immigration, and you add to that a policy of mass deportations, the question is, who's going to do the work? There's going to be substantial contraction in a lot of industries.

How unusual are new immigration restrictions like this?
It's certainly not something that's been done in recent decades. You'd have to go back to, I don't know, I think back on the national origin legislation in the 20s, where they were specifically trying to limit immigration from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe. They're not doing that here, but we would be going from admitting 1 million a year in a country of 330 million people to one that's admitting 500,000. I think it's fairly reckless, economically reckless. They haven't thought it through very well. I must say it seems a bit ideological, and it also seems that this was the plan all along, for certain politicians and groups. They didn't like the legal immigration either when they were railing against illegal immigration all these years.

You say it's "reckless." Is that contraction in the economy the negative consequence you're most worried about? Or are there other issues you see on the horizon with this?
There's social cohesion, in terms of families. We've never really had a well-resourced immigrant integration program, and families have had an extraordinarily important role in supporting their own and helping their own to integrate and move ahead. I think it's reckless to talk about substantial contraction of family-based immigration, particularly when you don't fully understand the employment contributions that family members make.

What do you think of the proposal in the bill to restrict refugee admissions to 50,000 a year?
The proposed refugee cuts represent a retreat from the United States' leadership in addressing refugee crises on the scale that the world is experiencing today. Moreover, refugees have contributed immensely to the United States and have always been a living reminder of our founding ideals. Overall, I would say that the bill will not serve any of the broad interests—economic, family, or humanitarian—that our nation has long wanted our immigration system to serve.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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