President Donald Trump’s immigration policies are, like much else, a confusing mix of tweets and false starts, but I took one signal clearly: He doesn’t think there’s room in our country and economy for families like mine. As I read his recent proposal to reform the legal immigration system, I found that my dad, a bilingual college-educated engineer, would be welcome, but not my mom, who never went to college and spoke little English when she accompanied my dad from Bolivia.
In this nation built on centuries of immigration, the judgments we’ve made over those centuries—about who gets to come and who doesn’t—reflect a lot of things: our economic needs, our values, the politics of the moment, and our respect for our own history. Given the dynamic nature of those judgments, it’s reasonable to do some periodic soul searching about what we want from our legal immigration system. But the Trump proposal pushes the debate toward one pole: fewer immigrants overall, fewer families and fewer “unskilled” immigrants, in exchange for those who are more “economically desirable.”
Some people on the left have even voiced support for this view. But the argument for curtailing unskilled immigration is based on three faulty assumptions: that the legal immigration system somehow favors the unskilled; that immigration is a zero-sum situation where more high-skilled immigration must come at the expense of family immigration; and that unskilled immigrants are undesirable in the first place. Each of these beliefs is wrong for both economic and moral reasons.
First, the legal immigration system doesn’t favor the unskilled. There hasn’t been a visa category for unskilled legal immigrants for decades. In other words, if a low-skilled person from another country seeks to become an immigrant to the United States, there’s no line—at all—for them to get into. Some come illegally, though the numbers for those have dropped to the lowest level in at least 40 years. It’s true that we have a sizable presence of 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States—and we’ll continue the debate on how to address that for the foreseeable future. But the legal immigration system doesn’t touch on this problem, except that long backlogs for family immigrants sometimes provide incentives for families to reunite outside of the law.
By Cecilia Munoz for THE AGENDA
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