- - Sunday, February 4, 2018


In his State of the Union address, President Trump again proposed immigration reform. Critics among Democrats and conservative Republicans would do well to recognize his framework provides the basis for a compromise that serves the national interest and delivers a measure of fairness for Dreamers.

The current system neither addresses the needs of the economy nor helps build a culturally cohesive nation.

Out of a U.S. population of 326 million, 45 million are immigrants. One quarter is illegal and that has hardly changed in recent years. Declining birth rates in Mexico and elsewhere, better employment opportunities created by free trade agreements and stronger enforcement slowed the inflow before Mr. Trump became president.

In contrast to Canada and Australia, which face similar challenges, the United States emphasizes family reunification as opposed to workforce needs. Green cards are granted automatically to spouses, minor children and parents of U.S. citizens. Subject to limits, entry is offered to other relatives of citizens and legal immigrants and refugees.

The rules are complex but about 65 percent of immigrant visas are based on family ties and 15 percent on employment. The remainder is mostly through a lottery for underrepresented countries and refugees.

Thanks significantly to chain immigration — naturalized citizens and green-card holders pulling in relatives who in turn pull in other relatives — the immigrant population tends to be considerably older and less educated and employable than the native born population. About half qualify for means tested programs such as food stamps,

Immigrants tend to be concentrated among two groups: the elderly and those with less than a high school education who either don’t work or compete for jobs with struggling less-skilled Americans, and those with more than a four-year college education — new arrivals doing jobs that not enough Americans are not trained to do in information technology, science and engineering or requiring other advanced degrees.

In an economy hard pressed by import competition and rapidly turning to labor-saving machines and artificial intelligence, the downward pressure on the wages wrought on Americans with a high school education or less is a cynical tyranny imposed by elites and politicians currying favor among ethnic voters — even if highly-skilled immigrants benefit the economy overall.

Not surprisingly, resentment about competition for jobs and social tensions tend to be concentrated in blue collar communities that voted for Mr. Trump.

Harmonious work climates in Manhattan’s financial district, California’s technology parks and other high powered environments illustrate that cultural affinities binding together similarly-educated professionals overwhelm ethnic differences among highly-skilled immigrants and native workers.

And the condescension of these elites on less fortunate Americans and the indifference of Democrats eager to harvest votes among minorities are important reasons Donald Trump now occupies the White House.

Mr. Trump’s proposal would increase visas for highly-skilled immigrants, end chain immigration by limiting family visas to spouses and minor children, end the lottery and establish a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers.

He is demanding funds for a wall along the southern border and other measures to bolster enforcement and security. In many places along the border, the idea of a wall is opposed even among many of his conservative supporters. Farmers and ranchers understand that physical barriers are often not as effective or cost efficient as investments in high tech surveillance and other deterrents.

Compromises offered by moderates in Congress generally water down Mr. Trump’s proposals to end the lottery system and chain immigration.

Unless a politician or immigration advocate can justify green-card bingo or believes that an immigrant’s first cousin once removed, through a visa granted his grandmother, is worthy of special consideration and preference over an electrical engineer, then such measures only appease the left’s desire to cultivate more voters among ethnic groups aligned with immigrants.

Charges of racism are no more than demagoguery and a tactic to deflect from those base motivations.

The president should moderate his demands for physical barriers and compromise with the Democrats on the other issues — for example, accept a focused program to foster skilled based immigration from underrepresented countries in exchange for strict limits on family reunification and ending the lottery as recently suggested by a bipartisan group of 48 lawmakers.

Good immigration reform would serve the interests of all Americans — not just the powerful and privileged.

Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.

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