- - Monday, June 10, 2019

America needs skilled immigrants but competes badly with other industrialized nations facing similar challenges. President Trump is championing reforms to help fix that.

Thanks to declining birth rates, poor performance of American universities and safety net programs discouraging work, America faces an overall shortage of workers and in particular skilled workers in STEM disciplines, construction trades and more ordinary semi-skilled jobs in hospitality and similar service activities.

Without more newcomers, the economy cannot grow at the pace necessary to generate the tax dollars to meet commitments to a growing elderly population, maintain U.S. defense capabilities and address critical domestic priorities like renewing infrastructure, fortifying cities for climate change and maintaining U.S. leadership in cutting-edge technologies.

Immigrants comprise 17.5 percent of the workforce, up from 10.6 in 1996 and this can be expected to grow. However, nearly half of immigrants have only a high school education or less, many lack adequate English proficiency, and up to half qualify for means-tested social programs.

Most working age immigrants fall into two large pools — those with technical degrees and trades that fill critical positions and without whom the U.S. footprint in high technology would be substantially smaller. For example, the recent trade dustup with Beijing is causing U.S. technology companies to hire fewer Chinese engineers — including many trained at American universities — and the lack of U.S.-born and other legal immigrant engineers is driving R&D to other English-speaking nations and China.

Add those ubiquitous folks we see cleaning homes, offices and tables at restaurants, working as car hops at parking garages and in other tasks requiring only rudimentary training and little English. It would be tough to put up a building, run a hotel or for professional mothers of young children to function effectively without them, but they do push down wages of less-skilled native-born Americans.

Any president — Donald Trump, Barack Obama or any of the Democratic hopefuls — is caught between the economy’s real need for immigrants and electoral pressures in critical swing states from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin to limit the inflow of immigrants who push down wages in economically challenged communities.

Democrats face an additional political temptation — advocating open borders, which would result in more low-skilled immigration boosts their electoral prospects with Hispanics and mostly tends to hurt them with nativists who won’t vote for them anyway. And Republicans face strong pressures from immigration minimalists who want to commit economic suicide by radically reducing the number of newcomers and even seal the border from virtually all asylum seekers.

The agenda of socialists like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is to boost immigration to even more dramatically alter the racial composition of the country and stack the electorate with needy folks who may be supported by hyper-taxing successful professionals. Those opportunists assume wealth and freedom are simply natural resources to be mined and require no cultivation or protection, and white-European culture is the source of all evil anyway.

However crass or racist Washington’s political elite may be, a president must speak to his base, court swing voters and come up with a plan that serves the nation’s needs. That is exactly what Mr. Trump proposes.

Forty-seven million legal immigrants reside in the United State. About 1.1 million are admitted each year — 46 percent are close relatives of green card holders and citizens, 21 percent more distant relatives, 13 percent on refugee and asylum status, 5 percent through the diversity lottery and only 12 percent based on the skills needs of the economy.

The president’s proposal would leave alone preferences for spouses, children and parents but establish a point system that seeks to shift those who are distant relatives and lottery winners toward immigrants with more education, applicants with firm job offers and who learn English before arriving. Within that group some preference for more distant relatives would apply.

As things currently stand, competitors like Canada, Australia and New Zealand award more than 60 percent of their combined visas based on skills that is hardly radical. And the president does not propose to cut the number of immigrants, as he has leaned in the past, giving him problems with his base and members of Congress with nativist instincts.

Neither House Speaker Nancy Pelosi nor Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has recently tabled or even whispered support for such a statesman like compromise. On immigration, the good character award goes to President Trump.

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

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