The Corner


Do the Candidates Know Anything About Immigration Policy?

From left: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro at the Democratic presidential debate in Houston, Texas, September 12, 2019. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Last night’s debate demonstrated, yet again, that the Democratic presidential hopefuls view themselves as qualified to hold forth on immigration policy despite have no blessed idea what our immigration policy is. Biden clearly didn’t know what went on in his own administration when he said “We didn’t lock people up in cages. We didn’t separate families.”

But what can you expect of Senator Billy Madison? More telling were Andrew Yang’s comments, not because of anything specific to him but as an example of most politicians’ (including Republicans’) frivolous and uninformed approach to immigration policy — arguably more frivolous and uninformed than the approach to any other policy.

Yang was the most likeable of the bunch on stage last night but, like so many people, he thinks that because his dad came from the old country, he knows all he needs to know about immigration. Following Elizabeth Warren’s call to “expand legal immigration” (without offering any numbers, of course), Yang said, “I would return the level of legal immigration to the point it was under the Obama-Biden administration.”

Unfortunately for Yang’s narrative, legal immigration is at the level it was under the Obama-Biden administration. The number of people granted lawful permanent residence (green cards), which is what we mean by “legal immigration,” averaged 1.06 million from Fiscal Year 2009 to 2016. The total for FY 2017 was 1.13 million, for 2018 was 1.1 million, and annualizing from the first quarter of FY 2019 yields a projected total of 1.03 million. Fluctuation within 100,000 is common (in 2013, the total was only 990,000), so the level is essentially unchanged. It could be that the green-card total will decline next year, because of the smaller number of refugees converting to green cards and, possibly, the new public charge rule leading to a reduction in the number of parents of adult U.S. citizens, but neither of these things has happened yet.

In fact, like Senator Warren, President Trump has repeatedly called for increased immigration. It’s been reported that the long-promised White House immigration bill will not increase green cards, but it nonetheless is likely to increase overall admissions. The proposal eliminates a variety of immigration categories (the chain migration categories and the visa lottery) and reallocates those numbers to the new merit-based system, thus supposedly leaving the overall level unchanged. But if the current measure bears any resemblance to the RAISE Act or the Goodlatte bill, both of which the White House supported, one of the “eliminated” green card categories, that for parents of adult U.S. citizens, would simply be converted to an indefinitely renewable “temporary” visa, meaning that the number of foreign-born moving here to live would go up – a lot (the number of elderly parents getting green cards has averaged 150,000 a year over the past four years).

And even thinking about “legal immigration” more broadly, as including such temporary (so-called “non-immigrant”) admissions, there’s no drop. On the one hand, H-1B visa denials rates (mostly for tech workers) are up a little because the law’s being enforced better; on the other, the administration expanded the H-2B program for non-farm seasonal workers. And the admission of “temporary” farmworkers has ballooned: “There is no limit to the number of farm jobs that can be certified to be filled by H-2A workers. The number of jobs certified rose from less than 50,000 jobs in FY05 to almost 243,000 in FY18.”

These are not arcane and irrelevant details. You don’t need to know the name of the Indonesian tourism minister, for instance, to offer serious opinions on foreign policy — but you should at least know where Indonesia is. By the same token, anyone who doesn’t even know the annual level of immigration within a couple hundred thousand, and whether it’s gone up or down, or stayed the same, shouldn’t have his views on immigration policy be taken seriously.

You expect Democrats not to know an AK-15 from an AR-47, because they consider guns to be an icky Republican thing. But immigration is supposed to be a Democratic thing, and yet these guys literally don’t know the most elementary facts.

Mark Krikorian, a nationally recognized expert on immigration issues, has served as Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) since 1995.

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