Politics & Policy

On Immigration, Trump Needs to Focus on the Numbers

Migrants from Honduras climb a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana, Mexico, December 12, 2018. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)
For all the fuss about the border, we're missing the big question.

It is understandable that a successful businessman such as President Trump would think about immigration from the standpoint of employers and their need for workers. To his credit, he rejected Republican orthodoxy in 2016 and argued for stopping illegal immigration, and he met with victims of illegal-alien crime. It is one of the main reasons he won. Equally impressive have been the administration’s attempts to fix the “public charge” rules and address the fact that 63 percent of households headed by a non-citizen access welfare.

But for all the talk about the border, the biggest issue when it comes to immigration is not welfare or illegal immigration per se; it is the total number of immigrants settling in the country, legally or illegally. While Democrats focus on amnesty, business associations endlessly push for ever more guest workers — and the media happily support both. But the president should always bring the discussion back to the numbers. Both the national interest and his political future depend on it.

The reason numbers are by far the most important immigration issue is that all the effects of immigration stem directly from the scale of immigration — cultural, political, social, economic, and fiscal. And the scale of contemporary immigration is truly enormous. The latest data indicate that there are about 45 million legal and illegal immigrants — roughly 34 million of whom are legal. About l.7 million new legal and illegal immigrants settle in the country each year. The total number of immigrants (legal and illegal) in the country has doubled since 1990, tripled since 1980, and quadrupled since 1970. As a share of the population, about one in seven U.S. residents is now a legal or illegal immigrant — the highest percentage in 107 years. The Census Bureau projects the immigrant share will surpass the highest level ever in America history in eight years if we choose to continue current policy.

Pew Research has estimated that since 1965 (when the law was liberalized) immigration has added 72 million people to the U.S. population. That’s post-1965 immigrants and their progeny. An analysis of the latest Census Bureau projections indicates that future immigration will add another 75 million by 2060. That means that future immigrants and their descendants will add a population the size of France in just four decades. There is no precedent for this in American history. The last great wave of immigration came to an end after about 60 years in 1914 due to World War I and then restrictive legislation in the 1920s.

Americans, particularly Trump voters, may not understand all the ins and outs of immigration law, or how exactly so many people gain entry. Most of them do not think immigrants are bad people. But they do know that in many parts of America now, there are so many immigrants that the incentive to learn English or adopt American culture is greatly reduced. They rightly sense that the numbers are overwhelming the assimilation process.

They also sense that immigration is remaking the political balance by adding millions of new voters who are voting Democratic by about 2 to 1. The long-term political impact of legal immigration is very large. After all, the president won immigrant-heavy Florida by only about 100,000 votes. Every single year we give out 1.1 million new green cards — which allow citizenship in 3 or 5 years.

Americans in general and Trump voters in particular may also not know all the employment statistics. But they do sense there is no labor shortage when real wages are no higher now than they were in 1978. Sure, unemployment is historically low, yet most people realize this is not the whole story. Unemployment includes only those who looked for a job in the last four weeks. At the end of 2018, 54.3 million working-age Americans (ages 16 to 64, excluding prisoners) were out of the labor force entirely, meaning they were neither working nor looking for work, and so don’t show up in the unemployment numbers. The overall labor-force participation rate, the share who are working or looking for work, has not changed that much in recent years, especially for Trump voters — native-born people without a college degree.

At election time, it is voters who determine the winner — not employers, not the media, not the editorial page of the New York Times. As an analysis of the 2016 election by FiveThirtyEight showed: “Trump’s Hardline Immigration Stance Got Him to the White House.” A look at the thousands of negative comments that are made at Breitbart (such as here or here) whenever the president even mentions increasing immigration demonstrates that Trump voters want less immigration — including guest workers. The president cannot win in 2020 if he alienates his base on this issue.

The strong economy is a huge opening for the president to argue that we should take advantage of it to draw more Americans back into the labor force by lowering both legal and illegal immigration. Saying outright that employers should raise wages if they need more workers would resonate with working-class voters — who are, after all, his supporters. Making the argument that the time has come to lower the numbers and facilitate the assimilation of the tens of millions of immigrants and their children already here, if done carefully, would appeal to a broad cross-section of the American people. This is especially true of the swing voters in the Midwest, who tend to be more culturally conservative but more economically liberal, and who were key to Trump’s victory.

For the sake of the country and his reelection, the people who voted for Trump need to be heard on immigration. There is no one better suited to do this than the president himself.

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