In a Rose Garden speech yesterday afternoon (a beautiful mid-May Thursday that is 18 months before the next presidential election), President Trump offered some lengthy remarks about the long-awaited White House proposal to modernize the legal immigration system. This morning, leading newspapers and networks are mistakenly dismissing the plan and missing two watershed changes that Trump’s Plan embodies.
In a nutshell, the new Trump Plan – which seems to have not been publicly released, even in Talking Points form – will restructure the composition of green cards while maintaining the net level of 1.1 million immigrants per year. It’s very much like revenue-neutral tax reform. In this case, Trump is proposing to bring in vastly more “merit-based” new citizens while reducing the number of family-based and (in his words) “random” new citizens. Such a shift is one of the few areas of consensus among policy wonks, and despite the immediate political resistance to the word “merit” by some of Trump’s antagonists, it has been used for decades as a short-hand for employment-based entry and programs that emphasize needed skills and more educated migrants. Regardless, there’s a common complaint we’re hearing from the media:
- “Cool Reception for a Plan on Immigration” is the title of a page A12 New York Times story, which noted that the plan has no champions among Republican Senators. The story also emphasized that the plan “did not address protections for the so-called Dreamers … or the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.”
- “[T]his proposal does not address some of the thorniest elements of the immigration debate,” said the Times editorial on page A28.
- “The new proposal … appears destined for the congressional dustbin (and) … sidesteps some major components of the immigration system that can be far more complex and controversial to resolve,” concludes a lengthy page 1 article in the Washington Post.
- The Post‘s editorial on page A20 calls it an “improvement over the administration’s previous bar-the-door approach … but the initiative omits even passing reference to the reality of 10 million or 11 million undocumented immigrants,” etc., etc.
- The Wall Street Journal offers a story on page A4 (but no editorial) which declares in its third paragraph: “It doesn’t address some pressing immigration policy issues….”
Politicians weren’t much better in their neglect of the plan’s substance. It’s fine to disagree with something on the merits (no pun intended), but Senator Chuck Schumer shouldn’t say the new plan is, “the same partisan, radical anti-immigration policies” as before. Trump called for preserving the world’s most open legal level of 1.1 million immigrants per year — that deserves a nod of praise even if you’re the leader of Senate Democrats.
The hypnotic grip of comprehensive immigration reform is hard to shake, apparently. Never has a concept so vexed policymaking. It’s as if a surgical team couldn’t just remove a ruptured appendix without also adding a new stent in the patient’s aorta, transplanting a lung, and doing some liposuction while they’re in there. No, my friend, comprehensive policymaking isn’t a good idea. It has failed every time it has been tried for two decades. President George W. Bush backed the McCain-Kennedy bill in 2007 with a massive, extended campaign. It failed, just like the 2006 effort led by Arlen Specter. Nor did President Obama have a better touch, backing the failed Gang of Eight bill in 2013.
The only thing that efforts to construct comprehensive immigration reform has achieved is polarizing the issue, even fracturing the parties internally. Witness the double failure of House Republicans last year to pass a bill and the current failure of Pelosi’s House majority to even produce a proposal.
The Trump Plan has room for improvement, to be sure, which I’ll gladly debate another day. Don’t let that distract you from what it achieves. First, it charts a new course – a new strategy if you will – of incremental reform rather than comprehensive reform. Second, it locks in Republicans to a new baseline of preserving current legal immigration levels. If you haven’t been paying attention, the hard line of 1.1 million was in real jeopardy. Now, there’s no going back.
The chart below shows how large the U.S. lead is in terms of total immigrants, with over 48 million total foreign-born residents. It comes from an analysis of United Nations data by Gilles Pison. The global war for talent will define the great power competition of the 21st century, and the U.S. is already far ahead.
There are many important issues in immigration policy, but for me the most important issue by far was holding the line. Legal immigration is literally and philosophically bigger than illegal immigration. It is the key to our national creed and one of the engines of our economic power. Yesterday was a big win.