The Corner

Politics & Policy

What the Public Wants from Legal Immigration

A big stumbling block for Trump’s immigration framework is how it would treat legal immigration. As I’ve outlined previously, after a long delay to clear a backlog of applications, it would sharply curtail “chain migration,” ending family-based visas with the exception of those given to spouses and minor children. No more adult children, siblings, parents. That would be a drastic cut to immigration levels — maybe a third or so.

Reducing total immigration, though, is not what the public wants. A majority are opposed in Gallup polls asking whether levels should go up, go down, or stay the same, and also in similar Pew polls focusing specifically on legal immigration. Increasing immigration is an even bigger loser, hands-down the least preferred of the three options, while decreasing immigration and keeping it the same are about tied — but since keeping it the same is both the status quo and the option substantively between the other two, it’s undeniably the center of gravity.

A reform to legal immigration that voters would support, however, is the one I suggested months ago when the RAISE Act debuted: Wipe out chain migration — and the diversity visa lottery too — but give those visas to skilled workers.

Earlier this month, Rasmussen ran a poll asking the following:

The majority of immigrant visas awarded in the United States are based on a family relationship. A proposal has been made to award visas instead on the level of skills a potential immigrant brings to this country. Do you favor moving to a merit-based system for legal immigration or prefer to keep the existing family-based system?

This doesn’t actually describe “the president’s plan” (as Rasmussen claimed in its press release), which would eliminate chain migration and replace it with nothing, but it does describe mine. 47 percent supported this idea and only 36 percent opposed it; the rest were undecided.

By the same token, a Harvard-Harris poll from last week asked this:

Do you think immigration priority for those coming to the U.S. should be based on a person’s ability to contribute to America as measured by their education and skills or based on a person having relatives in the U.S.?

As NPR notes, this isn’t a great question, because it gives an argument for skills-based immigration (“ability to contribute to America”) but not family-based migration. But for what it’s worth, 79 percent of respondents said they supported skills-based immigration, including 85 percent of blacks and 72 percent percent of Hispanics. Further, when asked whether they favored “the lottery that randomly picks 50,000 people to enter the U.S. each year for greater diversity,” only 32 percent did, including 43 percent of blacks and 39 percent of Hispanics.

Back in September, I suggested two different DACA deals Republicans might make. One is to simply trade DACA for mandatory E-Verify (so employers would be required to make sure their workers are in the country legally, also a popular idea), as well as some basic border-security measures. The other is a broader reform that would legalize the Dreamers immediately, ban chain migration and give the visas to the highest-skilled workers we can find, institute E-Verify and other security measures aggressively, and set a timetable for legalizing the rest of illegal-immigrant population as well once those efforts have proven effective. I still think those are good ideas.

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