Last week, Trump held a press conference to endorse a new immigration proposal offered by two Republican senators. In the name of restructuring legal immigration to maximize its benefits for the United States, it would restrict family-sponsored immigration, eliminate the “diversity lottery,” and introduce a point system for employment-based green cards.
The liberal press immediately denounced the proposal as racist. CNN reporter Jim Acosta had a heated discussion with Trump policy adviser Stephen Miller, and in The New Yorker, Jelani Cobb claimed that “Miller explained the move in terms that recalled the language of the racialist Immigration Act of 1924.” At The Week, Paul Waldman wrote that proposal was a “dramatic movement on policies that honor the white nationalist campaign Trump ran.” A longtime Miami Herald editor indicated that this was just the latest item in a continuing “white-supremacist, anti-immigrant agenda.”
These liberal commentators are misguided for three reasons.
First, they shift the discourse away from a serious discussion of a merit-based immigration system. Only a month earlier, the New York Times had published an essay applauding multiculturalism in Canada: “Two of the last three governors-general — Canada’s ceremonial heads of state — were born abroad (one in Haiti and one in Hong Kong), and the current cabinet has more Sikhs (four) than the cabinet of India.” Most important, the essay pointed to the Canadian immigration system, where the majority of applicants are “evaluated under a nine-point rubric that . . . looks at their age, education, job skills, language ability, and other attributes that define their potential contribution to the national work force.” This set of criteria is virtually identical to that of Trump’s proposal, and yet his is racist. A subsequent New York Times editorial condemned Trump’s proposal without any reference to the essay they had recently run.
Finally, many liberals, including those who run the New York Times editorial page, still refuse to take seriously the adverse impact of low-skilled Latino immigration on the wages and employment of black workers. The Times editorial dismissed the concern with a general reference to how valuable immigrants are to the U.S. economy, ignoring that the issue is not immigration in general but its impact on the most vulnerable workers.
Sometimes liberals do admit what most studies find: Immigration adversely affects the least educated workers. What they almost never admit, however, is the significant adverse effect of low-skilled immigration on black men.
Teen employment for black men fell from 26.7 percent in 1999 to 19.4 percent despite record low national unemployment rates. The declines have been even more dramatic for summer employment. A 2010 Federal Reserve Board paper estimated that one-third of the decrease was caused by immigration. A study prepared for the Conference of U.S. Mayors found that “male low income teens, especially Blacks and Hispanics, seem to suffer the greatest displacement from illegal immigrants.”
Teen employment is crucial for poor black teenagers. More than school or family in many cases, it enables them to develop the interpersonal soft skills and discipline needed to succeed in the workplace; some also obtain valuable mentoring. Just as important, many youth gain spending money the desire for which would otherwise would lead them to engage in illegal activities. Not surprisingly, some studies find a substantial link between immigration and black incarceration rates.
Overall, virtually all studies agree that immigration adversely affects high-school dropouts. George J. Borjas, Jeffrey Grogger, and Gordon H. Hanson showed that the greatest negative effects are on the wages and employment of black male high-school dropouts. The widely respected economist Harry Holzer doesn’t question their results in the short run. He finds that employers prefer immigrants because of a perceived superior work ethic and tolerance for low wages, and that they use ethnic networks to recruit. However, he believes there are mitigating long-run factors that overcome a modest portion of the adverse impact.
We must find a way to enact more merit-based immigration without decimating the share of the world’s poor who can legally enter the United States.
Even if these consequences affect only the least skilled workers, they surely affect the 23 percent of black men, 20 to 34 years old, who are either high-school dropouts or have no more than a high-school-equivalency degree. In 2010, less than 30 percent of this group was employed, even less than the share that was incarcerated. And there is no reason to believe that another one-quarter of black men who have no further education than their high-school degree escape unscathed.
A more sustainable criticism of the proposal lies in its halving of the number of green cards issued annually. (It dramatically reduces the number given through family unification while leaving the number of employment-based green cards the same.) This is the position taken by Bloomberg: Shifting to a Canadian point system is long overdue, but “admitting far fewer immigrants would do enormous damage to the U.S. economy and the federal government’s fiscal stability.”
Reducing the number of poor immigrants also raises moral concerns regarding the world’s most impoverished: How much more would they benefit from migration to the United States, compared with the more professional applicants that would benefit from Trump’s proposal? While Miller’s “America First” focus led him to dismiss completely this concern, we must find a way to enact more merit-based immigration without decimating the share of the world’s poor who can legally enter the United States.
— Robert Cherry is a Breuklundian professor at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center.