Though I agree with the consensus that the president gave a good State of the Union address on Tuesday, as such things go, his comments on immigration seemed so unremarkable I didn’t think they were worth writing about. I dismissed the one notable thing he did say on the subject as just another example of what the reporter Dara Lind calls “superlativizing“: Instead of reading the sentence on the teleprompter that said “I want people to come into our country, but they have to come in legally,” Trump ad-libbed, “I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.” (Emphasis added.)
My impression that this was just a Trumpian verbal tic was strengthened by the fact of his earlier support for the RAISE Act and the Goodlatte bill, both of which would have reduced overall immigration, albeit not as much as critics imagined.
But it turns out that this was more than mere superlativizing.
Trump was asked on Wednesday about the “largest numbers ever” comment, and he doubled down. Here’s the exchange:
REPORTER: Last night, you said in your SOTU address, “I want to come into this country in the largest numbers ever.” Is that a change in your policy?
TRUMP: Yes, because we need people in our country because our unemployment numbers are so low and we have massive numbers of companies coming back into our country — car companies, we have seven car companies coming back in right now and there’s going to be a lot more — we’ve done really well with this, and we need people.
REPORTER: So, you’re changing your policy officially, then? You want more legal immigration?
TRUMP: I need people coming in because we need people to run the factories and plants and companies that are moving back in. We need people.
This is the “legal-good/illegal-bad” immigration fallacy. Unfortunately, I forgot to include that in the list of potential immigration-politics landmines I posted on Tuesday.
Legal-good/illegal-bad is actually the default setting for mousy and irresolute Republican politicians: Demonstrate toughness to voters by demanding better enforcement, while swearing your allegiance to the continued importation of 1 million legal immigrants (and hundreds of thousands of “temporary” workers) every year, thus soothing employers looking for cheap labor and showing the New York Times how non-racist you are.
But it’s nonsense. Whether the concern is jobs, welfare, schools, or assimilation, legal and illegal aliens have similar impacts. Not necessarily identical, of course. Take welfare use. More than 60 percent of households headed by illegal immigrants use at least one federal welfare program, higher than the legal-immigrant rate of nearly 50 percent. But both groups are much more likely to use welfare than the native-born. Even legal immigrants with college degrees are twice as likely to use welfare as comparable natives.
Even the illegality of illegal aliens isn’t as important a distinguishing feature as some might think. Obviously, rampant illegal immigration undermines the rule of law; I don’t think I need to prove my bona fides in that regard. But legal and illegal immigrants are not different species — they come from the same countries, live in the same communities, often share mixed-status households, and are even the same actual people; the Public Policy Institute of California has estimated that more than 40 percent of new green-card recipients have been illegal aliens at some point. Heck, some people toggle back and forth between legal and illegal. Take Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, the Egyptian terrorist who murdered two people at the El Al counter at Los Angeles International Airport on the Fourth of July, 2002. He arrived on a tourist visa, legally, then failed to return when his permission to stay here expired, thus becoming an illegal alien. Later, he applied for asylum, becoming legal again temporarily, but again failed to leave after he was turned town, thus becoming illegal again. Finally, his wife won the Diversity Visa Lottery and he, as her spouse, also got a green card, thus becoming legal again, at least until he was shot dead by El Al security.
But what of the rationale the president offered? Do the hot economy and the low unemployment rate really justify turning away from his former “Hire American” lodestar? Only if you’re a businessman in a bubble.
The labor-force-participation rate — the share of working-age people who either have a job or are actively looking for one — has been declining for years. It is now at the lowest level since the full entry of women into the work force. Even after the past several years of vigorous growth, it is still below what it was in 2007, at the peak of the prior expansion, and even farther below the rate in 2000, the peak of the expansion before that. There are about 50 million working-age people — native-born and foreign-born — who are neither working nor looking for work. The idea that there is a labor shortage requiring the importation of workers is absurd.
But it is true that the easiest workers to hire and train and employ are already working. The 50 million–strong pool of untapped labor has a disproportionate share of people many employers would rather avoid. But the economy has gotten so hot that even the current excessive levels of immigration don’t provide enough easily accessible labor; so, until their lobbyists finagle something in Washington, employers have little choice but to expand their recruitment efforts, which means they’re having to hire ex-cons, recovering addicts, the disabled, teenagers, et al.
This won’t always work out. Some of the convicts released back into the community by the recent criminal-justice-reform law, for instance, will turn out to be dirtbags who reoffend and have to be locked up again. But those ex-cons who aren’t dirtbags and want to start over have a much better shot at success if they can get hired. And increasing immigration will only make that more difficult.
As I wrote in May, a tight labor market is the best social policy. But it’s also politically important for a candidate posing as the champion of the working man. Non-college voters in Pennsylvania and Michigan will, no doubt, take a variety of factors into consideration when deciding whether to vote in 2020 and for whom. But does anyone think they’ll be more likely to come out for the president if he’s increased the importation of foreign workers?