Economy & Business

The Case against a Nepotistic Immigration System

Signs at an immigration reform rally in Washington, D.C., in 2013 (Reuters photo: Larry Downing)
Trump’s reforms would be a win not just for his base, but for small-government conservatives as well.

Keen to score a political victory, Trump’s closest aides and friendliest senators have begun to craft a bill that would cut annual legal immigration by half in the next decade, and shift from family-based preferences to merit-based admissions. For Trump’s devoutly nationalist base — those who embraced him following his untethered diatribes against Mexico and “bad hombres” — this bill will feel like a much-needed bone from an otherwise listless White House.

On its face, in fact, the rumored immigration bill may seem as if it solely serves this nationalist wing of the Republican party. But in reality, the bill provides a practical victory for small-government conservatives as well — even those who objected to Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

The decrease in immigration may appear noteworthy, but the quality change is what will truly deliver a win for fiscal responsibility. Our current immigration process prioritizes nepotism above all else. Just one-tenth of legal immigrants currently enter the country on the basis of merit; the majority of immigrants secure entry to the U.S. through familial ties. While immediate relatives, such as spouses and minor children, should obviously be given a way in, it makes little economic sense to value the sibling or parent of an adult citizen over an ambitious immigrant with evident career prospects.

This argument may seem to fly in the face of economic theory. In a vacuum, the free flow of the labor force is beneficial to everyone — even low-income Americans — because cheaper labor will result in cheaper goods and services, and because immigrant and native workers will often have different skills, thus complementing each other rather than competing with each other directly. Furthermore, in the case of a labor surplus, some immigrants will return to their home countries. But due to a combination of political realities and political failings, this does not happen in practice.

America’s immigration system differs wildly from those of other countries. Our borders are some of the most porous in the world; America takes in around 20 percent of the entire world’s migrants. The nepotistic system was designed to ensure that an immigrant had a decent social safety net. Prior to the expansion of the welfare state, many immigrating to the U.S. relied on familial networks to get settled in their new communities. Yet as the welfare system expanded and households shrunk, government welfare has replaced the family in practice.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle will go to their graves asserting that immigrants are not receiving government welfare. And, in theory, they shouldn’t. Bill Clinton signed a law in 1996 to restrict immigrants from receiving some forms of welfare. In practice, though, the opposite has panned out.

Data from the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation show that a majority of legal- and illegal-immigrant households use at least one of the following welfare programs: Medicaid, cash programs including Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food programs, and housing programs. Even excluding school-lunch programs, 46 percent of these households use welfare. Some benefits are explicitly allowed, such as free public school and food programs for immigrant children and women, as well as emergency-room services and public goods, but immigrants can also use their children born in the country to acquire other benefits. In addition, immigrants on Medicaid can access many services through Planned Parenthood, including abortion in some states.

The U.S.’s low-skilled labor force does not follow the laws of supply and demand.

Between the accessibility of welfare benefits and the relative strictness of other countries’ immigration policies compared with our own, the U.S.’s low-skilled labor force does not follow the laws of supply and demand. Instead, economically non-optimal levels of low-skilled immigrants come to the country and drive down wages for low-income Americans — disproportionately affecting African-Americans — past a point of maximizing economic benefit to all citizens.

The Heritage Foundation found that low-skilled immigrant households receive $30,160 in government benefits and services annually while paying only $10,573 in taxes on average. Despite leftist claims that America is a uniquely unfeeling state, we spend the third-highest amount per capita on government social-welfare programs. If including private spending on education and health care, only Norway spends more on a per capita basis.

Focusing purely on the plan rather than Trump’s previous rhetoric, the bill will benefit not just Trump’s white-working-class base, but all Americans of varying income levels. The decrease in the number of immigrants may not even turn out to be practically important, though it will serve as a political victory for his base to tout.

Given the emotional charge on all sides of the immigration debate, Trump’s bill will inevitably enrage many on the left and even a few on the right who will want Trump to restrict immigration even further. Touching legal immigration at all without fulfilling unrealistic campaign promises is bound to spark a political firestorm. But ultimately, Trump’s policy may score him a victory, not just to his base, but to Americans viewing this issue as a question of dollars and cents.  


Trump’s Admirable by Unlikely Goals on Immigration

Trump Is Winning the Immigration Debate

Is Immigration to the U.S. an Entitlement?

— Tiana Lowe is an editorial intern at National Review.

Tiana LoweTiana Lowe is a senior pursuing her B.S. in economics and mathematics at the University of Southern California and a former editorial intern at National Review.


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