Politics & Policy

Trump’s Admirable but Unlikely Goals on Immigration

Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump stand in front of the American flag in Paris (Reuters: Gonzalo Fuentes)
His leaked policies would be an improvement, but he’s burning political capital every day.

As Republicans in the Senate stumble and fumble with their long-promised but never seriously planned repeal of Obamacare, the Trump administration is starting to leak its plans for what counts as ambitious immigration reform.

And it’s not all bad. The bill that the White House has in mind is based on the RAISE Act, introduced by Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue earlier this year. The giant headline measure is that the bill would cut in half the number of legal immigrants. The detail buried in paragraph 18 of most reports on it is that the bill will do this only after a decade of slowly lowering it to that level.

The biggest and most welcome change is that the proposal would begin to shift American immigration policy away from family-based chain migration and toward a merit-based system, with increased numbers of green cards available for qualified workers. Trump’s proposal would also discourage sanctuary-city policies. I’d love to discuss this bill on the merits, but this isn’t the first or last time Trump will make us talk about a policy that is never likely to become law. This White House has never had a strong influence on Capitol Hill, and its sway is weakening almost every day. Republicans in the Senate are struggling to deliver on a seven-year promise to repeal Obamacare, and they made no such promise on passing restrictionist legislation. Trump’s insurgent-style campaign meant that many Republican lawmakers felt no particular loyalty to Trump’s signature policy ideas or issues. And every day that the president is making headline headaches with his tweets, or with new revelations about his campaign’s connection to the Russians, the passage of a bill like this becomes an even more remote possibility.

The Trump administration was always going to have a hard time selling a bill that reduced overall rates of immigration into America. Consider where Republican lawmakers were on “comprehensive reform” in 2013. Many Republican senators voted for a bill that would have tripled the rate of legal immigration into the U.S. in perpetuity. Although it was advertised as an “enforcement first” policy, the CBO estimated that the proposed 2013 measures would reduce the rate of illegal immigration into America by just 25 percent over the next two decades. The only consequence of “failing to secure the border” in the 2013 bill was the eventual creation of a committee of bureaucrats to make more recommendations. This was the political reality before Trump — and since his election we’ve seen a major legal, media, and political blowback against Trump’s temporary travel ban.

Someday people will look back on this time of mass immigration into America, from the 1970s to now, and wonder how it was that the language of humanitarianism was so easily and cheaply deployed to subordinate the very concepts of political community, democratic checks, and even the rule of law itself to the demands of employers. They will find perverse the way that progressives and unscrupulous employers worked in tandem to create a class of millions of legally vulnerable people who are unable to stand up to employers and afraid to call the police when they are abused. The truth is that American policymakers valued low-wage labor more than they valued any of our professed political values.

But that reckoning will not begin any time soon. The fact of Trump’s election has moved the political center back toward sanity on immigration issues and away from open borders. But the fact of Trump’s character means we are not substantially closer to getting sensible immigration reform passed. He is wasting political capital almost every day.

The fact of Trump’s character means we are not substantially closer to getting sensible immigration reform passed.

And there may be long-term damage as well. Even restrictionists like me have to admit that Trump has been ugly and demagogic on this issue. He has criticized judges for their ethnicity; he’s tarred millions of immigrants as felons. Because he commands the loyalty of the Republican base, he has made the Republican style of partisanship more like his own on this issue. This is setting the sober work of policy-making behind.

Western Europe and the United States are both slowly coming to understand that the psychological and financial costs of migration are falling and emigration to the West is becoming a more attractive option to more people across the world. Trump’s election was an acknowledgement of this reality. But his administration is currently an obstacle in the way of doing something intelligent about it.


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— Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior writer at National Review.

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