Some Advice for President-Elect Trump

More than a few people have asked me in the past few days what advice, if any, I would give to President-elect Trump about immigration. Here are some more-or-less random thoughts that touch on a few of the policy issues that have to be confronted:

Enforcement First. The first step must be immediate action to greatly reduce the inflow of illegal immigrants. Illegal immigration has had a deeply corrosive impact on the immigration debate; it has paralyzed any rational discussion of how we should proceed along all other aspects of immigration reform. The open borders approach that allowed the entry of millions of illegal immigrants makes legal immigration policy “a travesty of a mockery of a sham.” Why bother waiting years abroad for that green card in the mail—such as the 23-year wait that some Filipino visa applicants are now enduring—when one can accomplish much of the same goal by running across the border or overstaying a tourist visa? I am not sure that a wall—despite its signal that we are finally getting serious about illegal immigration—will do the job; many of the illegal immigrants do not enter through the southern border. But I am willing to bet that the mandated adoption of an electronic system (such as E-Verify) that would force all employers to certify the visa status of all hires, along with very large fines and criminal penalties for law-breaking employers, would go a long way towards stemming the flow.

Benign Neglect. What to do about the 11+ million undocumented immigrants already living in the country? I think the wisest answer is: For the most part, ignore them! I find it very heartening that we do not have the stomach for such large-scale deportations. Most of those immigrants have led peaceful and uneventful lives in our country and became part of our communities. Their sudden removal would certainly not represent the America that many of us envision. I am also old enough to remember Daniel Patrick Moynihan being vilified for using the phrase “benign neglect” to discuss policy options regarding black economic progress in the late 1960s. Maybe it’s time to resurrect those words in the context of illegal immigration. Sometimes inaction is the best action. Most of the illegal immigrants already here will eventually qualify (if they haven’t qualified already) for visas through the family preference system. If the “enforcement first” step of stemming the illegal flow is successful, there can perhaps be eventual agreement on legislation that would accelerate the process of granting family preference visas to the existing undocumented population.

Winners and Losers. And what about legal immigration? The time has come to start talking about legal immigration more realistically. Despite what the Chamber of Commerce claims, legal immigration is not manna from heaven. As with all other social policies, legal immigration creates winners and losers, and any rational discussion of immigration policy must consider that tradeoff. The employers who gain, along with many willing co-conspirators in the media and academia, have effectively silenced debate by reframing the issue as a battle between white-hatted globalists who carry the banner of progress on the one side and the xenophobes and racists on the other. If nothing else, the widespread revolt against globalization makes it obvious that there are indeed losers, and the losers are tired of being lied to and being left behind. American workers had no voice in setting up a system that was bought and paid for by the economic interests that gain from increased immigration. It is time to change that balance of power—those who gain should bear part of the costs, and those who lose should receive some of the benefits. There are many ways of redistributing the gains—ranging from taxing those industries that most benefit from the hiring of immigrants to making employers pay tens of thousands of dollars for each H-1B visa granted. If nothing else, this would help employers internalize the cost of the policies that they have benefitted so much from, and lead to a much more rational discussion of how much and which type of immigration we should have.

Skilled or Unskilled? There is little doubt that high-skill immigration is far more beneficial—in an economic sense—than low-skill immigration. In fact, one could plausibly argue that low-skill immigration does not provide any net economic benefit, and likely generates a net loss. Having said that, immigration policy should not be just about dollars. There is something uniquely historic and extraordinary about the United States having offered hope to “the tired and the poor” from other countries for so long. And I, for one, would like to see this continue. But the continuation of this policy requires that the number of low-skill immigrants be set in a responsible fashion. Low-skill immigration cannot be allowed to create sizable–and uncompensated–dislocations in the economic opportunities of low-skill Americans. Many of the workers who have lost out as a result of large-scale low-skill immigration have been blacks or Hispanics, and it is exceedingly difficult to justify a policy that persistently makes the most vulnerable worse off. And the level and type of high-skill immigration must also be set in a responsible manner. It is again very difficult to justify a policy where profit-seeking employers force American workers to train their equally qualified foreign-born replacements.

Immigration and Welfare. As the recent National Academy report documented, the average immigrant now living in the United States generates a fiscal burden at least in the short run. This is no surprise to anyone familiar with the data: immigrant households have far higher rates of welfare participation than natives. According to the Survey of Income and Program Participation, 46 percent of immigrant-headed households receive cash benefits, Medicaid, or food stamps, as compared to 27 percent of native households. These high rates of welfare use persist even though current law prohibits many non-citizens from receiving federally funded public assistance. They are also inconsistent with the “public charge” provisions of immigration law. Those provisions, which have been in the books for over a century, prohibit the entry of public charges as well as permit their deportation. But the immigration authorities have perverted the definition of a public charge so as to make the law almost meaningless. Amazing as it may seem, long-term dependence on, say, food stamps or Medicaid does not lead to an immigrant household being classified as a public charge. It might be worth trying an “enforcement first” approach in this context as well. Let’s be more sensible about the regulatory definition of a “public charge,” enforce current laws that restrict immigrant welfare use, and revisit the issue after we see the consequences of this more realistic approach.

Who Are You Rooting For? President-elect Trump clearly articulated his vision of what immigration policy should accomplish in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention: “Decades of record immigration have produced lower wages and higher unemployment for our citizens, especially for African-American and Latino workers. We are going to have an immigration system that works, but one that works for the American people.” This goal is consistent with an approach of responsible nationalism, where the well being of Americans, and particularly of American workers, should weigh heavily when we determine in which direction to go. There are obviously many other groups that we might care about–including the immigrants themselves, the firms that profit from the additional labor, and the people left behind in the source countries. It is easy to detract from the discussion by arguing over mundane trivialities: Does immigration reduce wages by 3 percent or 5 percent? Is the fiscal burden $50 billion or $75 billion? We need a radical reframing of the immigration debate. The detractors of President-elect Trump’s proposals should be asked to answer a simple question: Who are they rooting for? By making them explicitly declare whose well-being they really care about, we will get a much more honest look at the ideological forces that drive their immigration proposals, and the American people would get a chance to see who exactly is representing their interests.

Vetting Immigrants: In a piece I wrote for Politico last summer, I documented that immigrant vetting is as American as apple pie. We did it in the past, we are doing it now, and we will continue to do it in the future. As long as there are restrictions on the number of immigrants, we will need to write down a formula to pick the lucky winners in this lottery. The United States has used, and continues to use, various types of political and ideological filtering when allocating those sought-after visas. There are good reasons why current law specifically ascertains if the potential migrant has provided “support to any person or organization that has ever engaged or conspired to engage in sabotage, kidnapping, political assassination, hijacking, or any other form of terrorist activity” and why new American citizens must swear to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies.” Although there can be, and almost certainly there will be, a serious debate over how best to limit the entry of potential troublemakers, not vetting immigrants very carefully in the dangerous world we live in would be a serious dereliction of duty for any Commander in Chief.

How Many? To be brutally honest, I don’t know. Any economist can easily answer the question in the abstract: As long as the contribution of an additional immigrant exceeds the costs imposed by that immigrant, it would be optimal to let that person in. Unfortunately, it is not that easy to operationalize this very simple rule. In fact, there isn’t a single academic paper that one can rely on to make a credible argument about what the optimal number of immigrants should be. The United States has admitted an average of about 1.5 million immigrants per year over the past two decades (about 1 million legal and half-a-million illegal). It seems self-evident that the debate over the consequences of immigration—which partly fueled the momentum behind Trump’s victory—hints that many Americans believe that we have gone beyond the optimal number. We also have some evidence that this high level of immigration led to a slowdown in immigrant assimilation. More than two decades ago, the Commission for Immigration Reform, led by the legendary Barbara Jordan, recommended to President Clinton a target of around 500,000 legal immigrants per year. If the “enforcement first” approach is successful and dramatically slows down the flow of illegal immigrants, it may be sensible to initially settle on a number between the 500,000 Jordan recommendation and the current 1 million legal immigrants. Let the political bargaining begin!

Note: My new book, We Wanted Workers, discusses some of these ideas in the concluding chapter.

Author: George Borjas

I am a Professor of Economics and Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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