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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

Breaking Down the Republican War Against Legal Immigration

After years of trying to crack down on undocumented immigrants, some GOP presidential hopefuls are trying to broaden the fight against foreign workers.
July 27, 2015, 10:07pm
Workers harvest handpicked sweet potatoes on a farm in Virginia. Photo by the US Department of Agriculture via Flickr

Donald Trump might tell you he risked his life in south Texas last week. Wearing a "Make America Great Again" baseball cap, he strutted off his private jet in the city of Laredo and was chauffeured to the nearby US-Mexico border, trailed by a pack of reporters waiting to hear what the real-estate-mogul-turned-2016-presidential-candidate would say next.

"They say it is a great danger but I have to do it, I love the country and there's nothing more important than what I'm doing," Trump told the press herds (the FBI, incidentally, rated Laredo as one of Texas' safest cities in 2013). "I'm the one who brought up the problem of illegal immigration and it's a big problem, a huge problem."


Trump, whose theatrical tirades about the dangers posed by Mexican immigrants have launched him to the top of the 2016 GOP field, spent 40 minutes at the border Thursday, touring the line between the US and Mexico with the mayor of Laredo, and pontificating that "you have to make the people who come in [to the country], they have to be legal."

While even Republicans have acknowledged that Trump's comments are extreme, the GOP presidential candidates generally agree on his broader points, insisting that they too will tighten border security, crack down on undocumented workers, and require local law enforcement to hand illegal immigrants to Immigration Customs and Enforcement.

But some GOP candidates are taking the battle a step farther, calling for a reduction in the number of foreign immigrants who legally enter the US. "It's not just about being tough on the border. It's about legal immigration," Rick Santorum said in a speech at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa earlier this month. "We have to hold the line on illegal immigration, to stop it, but also to reduce legal immigration of unskilled workers by 25 percent so we can bring wages up in this country."

Santorum's comments echoed those of his fellow Republican 2016 hopeful, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who told Glenn Beck in April that the government should consider curbing legal migration limits to shield the domestic workforce.


"The next president and the next Congress need to make decisions on the legal immigration system that are based on, first and foremost, protecting American workers and American wages," Walker said in an interview, noting that the US now has its largest foreign-born population in history at about 40 million people, according to 2010 census data. "Because the more I've talked to folks…the more I see what is this doing for American workers looking for jobs, what is this doing for wages."

In Congress, Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, has argued several ties for the US limit its visas for foreigners to protect American workers. "We should not admit more people in this country than we can expect to vet, assimilate, and absorb into our labor markets and schools," Sessions said in a statement this month. "It is not mainstream, but extreme, to continue surging immigration beyond all historical precedent."

Related: We Asked an Expert What Would Happen If Donald Trump Actually Became President

Other Republicans, including several 2016 presidential candidates, have focused on reducing legal immigration from predominantly Muslim countries, citing an increased risk of terrorism. In the wake of the shooting in Chattanooga, Tennessee earlier this month, Rand Paul told Breitbart News that he is trying to restrict arrivals from "countries that have hotbeds of jihadism and hotbeds of Islamism." Ted Cruz also issued a statement after the shooting calling for heightened scrutiny of Muslim immigrants.


In the meantime, public opinion is split over the issue of legal immigration. A poll released by the Pew Research Center earlier this year found that 36 percent of Americans surveyed favored curbing legal immigration, while 31 percent supported an increase; 25 percent wanted rates to remain the same.

When it comes to the economic impact of immigration, Santorum and others have proposed that capping unskilled labor visas would benefit Americans, allowing raises to rise and opening up new opportunities for unemployed workers."What is in the best interest of American workers? What are we going to do to get those salaries up?" Santorum told the audience at the Family Leadership Summit. "The vast majority of people coming into this country are unskilled workers competing to keep wages down."

But analysts say that Santorum's proposal to cut unskilled worker visas by 25 percent would prompt a marginal—if any—shift for US employees. For one thing, the US State Department issues so few visas for unskilled workers that the population is a drop in the bucket in the overall workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 500,000 people annually receive temporary unskilled labor visas, while the entire US labor force is composed of at least 157 million people, Santorum's proposal would cut temporary visas by 125,000 annually—reducing our workforce by just about .1 percent.

"Most of the research shows that immigration in the past 3 decades has had a modest impact on the least educated workers, people without high school degrees," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Research.

Like this? Watch The Business of Life: The USA and Its Immigration Dilemma

If temporary visas for unskilled workers are reduced, Baker warned, more individuals might choose to enter the country without papers. "If you decrease the number of people who can come here legally it may be offset by people who come here illegally," he said. "Most employers have very little fears when they hire an undocumented worker. They can face fines but it's rare. More effective controls would be enforcement at point of hiring, and serious penalties for employers who don't follow [the rules]."

Legal immigration has benefited the economy overall, said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a Cornell University Law School professor who works on immigration and asylum law. A 2011 report from the American Enterprise Institute found that temporary workers, both unskilled and skilled, actually add jobs to the US economy, and that there is no evidence that foreign-born workers, taken in aggregate, hurts American employment.


Despite the economic benefits, though, the visa programs for unskilled laborers, like most aspects of the country's broken immigration system, are in need of reform. Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research for the Economic Policy Institute, said employers could easily abuse their temporary workers, who rely on their bosses for permission to remain in the country, citing a 2011 review of the student worker program, in which he found that employers often failed to provide their employees promised accommodations or benefits.

"The employer essentially owns the guest worker visa, so if you're fired you're deportable," Costa said. "So it makes workers afraid to complain, because if they do they have to leave the country."

He added that the US government should institute greater safeguards for foreign workers, who are a "critical part of the economy."

"I'm less worried about the numbers [of visas] and more about creating a procedure that is fair for US and foreign workers, so foreign workers have more protections from retaliation and even wages," Costa told me. "I think the candidates are making blanket statements that reducing immigration is going to open up jobs, but it's not that simple."

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