Liberals need to understand that immigration isn't necessarily always good for America.
In a press-conference confrontation earlier this week that has now gone viral, CNN reporter Jim Acosta, the child of Cuban immigrants, accused Stephen Miller, advisor to President Donald Trump, of defending an immigration-reform bill that violated the sacred words printed at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor …” Miller responded feebly that the poem had been added after the statue had been installed. He would have spoken to a deeper truth, however, if he had said that immigration policy is not designed to shelter the world’s “huddled masses” but to make America great. (I’ll leave off the “again.”)
The legislation that Miller was defending is, itself, indefensible. The bill, introduced by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.), and loudly trumpeted by our trumpet-in-chief, would reduce immigration by half over the next decade despite overwhelming evidence that immigration boosts economic growth. It would cut the number of refugees the United States takes annually from 85,000 to 50,000, a pitiful figure at a time when Europe is besieged by refugees from Middle Eastern wars. The bill is a sop to the xenophobes who constitute a significant part of Trump’s base; it should come as no surprise that white nationalists like Richard Spencer have affixed their seal of approval.
Nevertheless, the reaction to the bill reveals a kind of existential confusion among pro-immigration liberals. Immigration policy is not governed by compassion for the world’s downtrodden. That’s refugee policy. Refugees have a moral claim on the states from which they seek asylum. Immigrants do not. States take them in as a matter of national self-interest, not compassion or international law. Mark Silverman, an immigration advocate, took up Jim Acosta’s theme by observing sardonically, “Maybe they should change the inscription on the Statue of Liberty to, ‘give me your computer engineers and your high-paid professionals yearning to increase their rate of return.’” I hope they don’t, if only because the line doesn’t scan as well as the Emma Lazarus poem. But it wouldn’t be as grotesque as he seems to think.
Current law allows American citizens to bring in spouses, unmarried minor children, and parents; a more limited number of visas are available for adult children and siblings, as well as for the spouses and unmarried children of legal permanent residents. Almost two-thirds of immigrants are admitted through such family-reunification programs. The Cotton-Perdue bill would eliminate the provisions for adult children and siblings, known as “family preference.” It would further reduce immigration by ending the so-called “diversity visa” program, which allocates 55,000 visas annually to applicants from countries that have sent few citizens to the United States in recent years. Many of the beneficiaries are African, though others come from Europe.
The first provision of the proposed legislation has been denounced as cruel; the second, as racist. In fact, both were part of the 2013 immigration-reform legislation supported by the Obama administration and passed by the Senate before dying in the House. That bill, forged by the bipartisan “Gang of Eight,” would have established a merit-based program that distributed visas according to a points system based on family ties and work skills — which is just what the Cotton-Perdue bill also proposes to do. (Though the new legislation, in a nod to the poisonous nationalism of our day, would also require English-language skills.) The 2013 bill, in short, would have beckoned computer engineers to our shores. And it would have discarded diversity in favor of the ability to contribute to the American economy.
The reason why the 2013 bill was a serious attempt at reform, and the Cotton-Perdue bill is not, is that the Gang of Eight incorporated changes in the visa system into a larger effort to rethink the immigration system. The bill would have provided a 13-year path to citizenship for illegal immigrants — the killer provision for right-wingers in the House — improvements in border control, and an increase in visa allotments for high-skilled as well as low-skilled workers. The premise of the bill was that immigration, if shaped properly, was good for the country; it would have increased the total number of legal immigrants while changing their composition.
The current Senate bill, by contrast, is predicated on the idea that low-skilled immigrants are bad for the United States. Donald Trump introduced the bill by declaring that immigrants are “not going to come in and just immediately collect welfare” — something which they are currently legally prohibited from doing. Trump also said that the bill would “reduce poverty, increase wages, and save taxpayers billions and billions of dollars.”
Democrats volleyed back with studies showing that immigration increases economic growth, and that immigrants do not take jobs from American workers. The evidence for the first is incontrovertible. It is, of course, the second claim that has turned immigration into a zero-sum proposition for so many Americans, especially those with lower levels of education and skills. Here the evidence is more equivocal. Immigrants do seem to crowd out some natives in the competition for jobs not requiring a high-school degree.
You do not have to be a nativist or a Trump supporter to fear that immigration, like free trade, can harm some Americans even as it helps the country overall. And you certainly don’t have to be an America-first nationalist to insist that immigration serve the interests of the country rather than that of high-tech employers or agribusiness, which is what Stephen Miller was getting at when he said in his fateful confrontation that “special interests” were behind the argument for increasing the flow of low-skilled immigrants. A sensible immigration policy, if one could ever be enacted, would almost certainly take more people whose skills match the needs of the American economy, and fewer — as a fraction of the overall total, if not in absolute numbers — who happen to be a relative of a citizen or legal resident. If that’s not in the spirit of the Statute of Liberty, that’s because, as Miller put it, the statue symbolizes America’s commitment to liberty, not its immigration policy.
I have written in the past that liberals will not win the epochal struggle against anti-liberalism simply by standing on the ramparts and shouting their convictions. They need to distinguish between what is legitimate and illegitimate in the anti-liberal credo and to think anew about how to meet legitimate concerns. That’s the only way to make sure that Donald Trump, and all he stands for, becomes only a dreadful footnote in our national narrative.
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