The president first tweeted about, then signed, a Presidential Proclamation temporarily pausing some categories of immigration. Predictably, the left, Democrats, and much of the media all decried the new policy as horrible. But the president’s action was also criticized by immigration hawks, including my colleague Mark Krikorian, who have long argued that reducing the level of immigration would be good for country. Mark is not alone; many felt that the move was largely meaningless because of all the things that it did not do.
But I think these critics miss the point. President Trump justified his action on the grounds that it was needed to “help put unemployed Americans first in line for jobs as America reopens.” The idea that immigration should not result in a reduction in wages or job opportunities for Americans is something the vast majority of Americans agree with, but almost no American leaders ever even mention. By framing the issue around jobs, the president has done the country an important service. Those who are disappointed in the limited nature of this action need to acknowledge how important it is to have a president who takes the view that immigration should not harm American workers.
It is certainly true that the actual proclamation is modest and limited in scope, as opposed to the president’s initial tweet about it. It deals only with people being issued green cards (permanent residency), not guest workers and other related programs. Moreover, many of the green card categories remain in place under the new proclamation. Nonetheless, it is profoundly important as a nation to approach the immigration issue by considering its impact on American workers. This is even more important now given that the unemployment rate may soon match Great Depression levels.
There were about seven million people already unemployed in March of this year and some 26 million people have filed for unemployment since the middle of last month. The U.S. labor force, which is the denominator used to calculate the unemployment rates, is about 165 million. It is possible the unemployment will reach 20 percent in April or May when those figures are released. Before the Wuhan coronavirus hit, the U.S. was issuing about 80,000 green cards each month, all of which come, by definition, with lifetime work authorization. In addition, about 70,000 temporary work visas are issued each month and something like 150,000 foreign students, asylum seekers, DACA recipients, unapproved green card applicants, and others are also given work permits on a monthly basis. There is certainly ample evidence that immigration reduces employment and wages for some American workers. Now, with perhaps 30 million Americans unemployed, it makes even more sense to look at immigration levels. Unfortunately, the whole system runs on autopilot, with little regard for labor market conditions in the United States.
Trump has taken at least part of the system off autopilot, and that is an important first step. Critics should see his actions in that light. To be sure, a disproportionate share of the people who have lost their jobs in the last two months have modest levels of education. So allowing in large numbers of foreign workers to take unskilled jobs — through, for instance, the H-2B visa and some of the programs under the J-1 visa — is clearly unwise. But there is nothing in the proclamation that prevents the president from expanding it to include more green cards and guest-worker programs. In fact, the proclamation itself calls for the departments of Labor and Homeland Security to present within 30 days recommendations on changes to guest worker programs.
Taking additional immigration measures to protect American workers would not just mend fences with immigration hawks, it would be popular with the American people. In short, an expansion of the immigration pause to include more categories would be both good politics and good public policy.