The President’s Immigration Reform Plan Takes a Well-Deserved Tumble

Donald Kerwin
Center for Migration Studies

Editorial Credit: Michael F. Hiatt /

The President’s Immigration Reform Plan Takes a Well-Deserved Tumble

The Trump administration repeatedly insisted during the Senate’s immigration debate that it would reject any plan that did not incorporate all of its pillars for reform. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inserted itself into the debate with a press release riven with nativist buzzwords, mischaracterizations and gross exaggeration. By the debate’s end, Congress and the administration had yet again stymied the Dreamers’ 17-year quest for full membership in their nation; a bipartisan plan to provide a long path to citizenship for the Dreamers, significant funding for border enforcement, and some limits on family-based immigration garnered 54 votes despite the administration’s vociferous opposition; and the administration’s preferred legislation received just 39 votes. For their parts, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell supported the president’s plan and House Speaker Paul Ryan praised it as a “sincere offer” that “should be the framework through which we come together to find a solution.” Yet the administration’s plan – embodied in the Grassley and Goodlatte-McCaul bills – fails to serve the nation’s economy, families, or humanitarian values. And its approach seems to be particularly at odds with the traditional pro-business, work, and family platform of the Republican Party.

The central pillar of the president’s immigration agenda is an “impregnable” wall spanning the length of the US-Mexico border. This idea began, as a “not fully informed” campaign promise in the words of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and it remains largely opposed by the US public. Fencing makes sense at major crossing and smuggling routes, as past administrations have recognized. In addition, there remains a strong need for increased infrastructure and screening capacity at ports-of-entry. Yet the president’s proposed wall comes at a time when illegal entries have fallen to levels not seen since the 1970s, when the southwest border – according to the DHS – “is more difficult to illegally cross today than ever before,” and when the number of undocumented US residents – driven by multi-year decreases in Mexican migration – has fallen by roughly one million since 2010.  In addition, as the Center for Migration Studies (CMS) has documented, since 2008 two times as many newly unauthorized persons have entered legally and overstayed temporary visas, than have illegally crossed the southern border. The wall will do nothing to stop them. Moreover, it would be physically impossible to build in places, would require epic land seizures, and would have disastrous economic, environmental and social consequences for border communities.

As it stands, the United States spends $19 billion a year on DHS’s two immigration enforcement agencies, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). This amount – which would rise to more than $24 billion under the administration’s 2018 budget – exceeds the combined budgets of all other US federal law enforcement agencies and its federal and state labor standards departments. Yet DHS made the remarkable claim that its ability “to enforce immigration laws” would be destroyed by a bi-partisan bill to legalize select Dreamers and provide it with an additional $25 billion in border funding. By way of comparison, the United States spent $103 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars on the reconstruction of Europe after World War II. Robust border enforcement is necessary, but it is fair to ask whether the nation could spend some of its enforcement dollars more effectively on addressing the conditions that drive migration, particularly if DHS’s capacities are so fragile.

The president campaigned against illegal migration, but his main immigration targets in office have been legal migrants and legal migration programs, particularly the nation’s family-based immigration system. We know that families have been essential to the well-being of immigrants, to immigrant integration, and to the US labor force, both as high-skilled and less-credentialed workers. Many family-based immigrants also become entrepreneurs or self-employed. Yet Stuart Anderson and David Bier of the Cato Institute estimate that the president’s plan would cut legal immigration levels by 44 percent, the largest “policy-driven” decrease in nearly a century. Anderson makes the point that while the president argues in favor of a “merit-based” immigration system, his administration is widely seen as the most hostile in a half-century to employers that seek to hire highly skilled foreign workers.

The president has falsely claimed that the US family-based immigration system allows “a single immigrant to bring in “virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.” To the contrary, it allows US citizens and lawful permanent residents (LPRs) to petition only for select nuclear family members. In addition, the family-based immigration categories slated for elimination by the president are subject to strict numerical caps: they present no risk of spiraling admissions and overall admissions in these categories have remained remarkably steady over the last 15 years. CMS’s research shows that the US immigration system produces the same ratio of skilled workers as that of the native population. It produces necessary workers at all skill levels.

The president would also eliminate diversity visas, which he claims are “randomly” granted “without any regard for skill, merit, or the safety of American people.” Yet the diversity visa program includes criminal, security and health screening, as well as education and work requirements.

The administration has betrayed particular hostility to humanitarian programs. Beyond cutting refugee admissions to the lowest level in the program’s history, the administration has eviscerated the US safe have program, temporary protected status (TPS). It has terminated TPS for 200,000 El Salvadorans, 50,000 Haitians, and lesser numbers of Nicaraguans and Sudanese. The 57,000 Honduras with TPS will likely be the next group to lose this status. It also ended Central America Minors program, which allowed refugee children from the Northern Triangle states of Central America to enter the US legally to join their legally present parents.

The administration describes as a “legal loophole” an anti-trafficking law that prevents the expedited return of unaccompanied children at risk of human trafficking to non-contiguous states, like the Northern Triangle states of Central America. Under the administration’s plan, these children could only avoid fast-track deportation if border officials found them to be potential trafficking victims or asylum claimants. Yet the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Appleseed and other groups have reported that border interviews of unaccompanied minors do not sufficiently assess whether the children are potential trafficking victims, have a potential asylum claim, or have the ability to withdraw their claims. In short, closing this “legal loophole,” would return children to traffickers and violence.

Finally, the administration’s political strategy has denied the nation one of the truly essential pillars of reform, a path to citizenship for the Dreamers. Despite his professed “love” for the Dreamers, the president terminated the DACA program and has treated legalization of the Dreamers as a political concession. Yet polls indicate that between 80 and 90 percent of Americans favor legalization of the Dreamers. Did the administration seek a “compromise” with the American public?  If so, its agenda received a stinging rebuke.

A recent CMS profile of the DREAM Act-eligible found a long-term, highly productive population, with deep ties to the United States. More than 2.2 million US residents would qualify for conditional residence under this Act. Dreamers live in large numbers (5,000 or more) in 41 states and are heavily concentrated in more than 30 counties, metropolitan areas, and cities. On average, they have lived in the United States for 14 years. Sixty-five percent work. Many are highly skilled and credentialed, and 70,500 are self-employed. Eighty-eight percent speaks English exclusively, very well, or well. They have 392,500 US citizen children, and more than 100,000 are married to US citizens or LPRs. Twenty-nine percent has attended college or received a college degree. This figure will dramatically increase as this population ages. States and localities have already invested $150 billion in educating the Dreamers and, by virtually every indicia – education, employment, self-employment, tax revenues, US family ties, and English language proficiency – the return on this investment would increase with legal status.

Instead, the administration has embarked on a mass deportation program. ICE’s director has courageously put undocumented immigrants on notice that they should be afraid. Yet a mass deportation policy would hurt far more than the undocumented. To take one example, there are 3.3. million mixed-status households in the United States; i.e., those with  US citizen (typically a child) and an undocumented resident (typically a parent). Furthermore, 6.6 million US-born citizens live in these households, with 5.7 million of them are under age 18. CMS estimates that removing the undocumented members of these households would reduce their median income by 47 percent (to $22,000), and plunge millions of families into poverty. If just one-third of the US-born children of deported residents remained in the United States, the cost of raising them to maturity would be $118 billion. That’s about five years of immigration enforcement funding. Will Congress pick up the tab?

An abbreviated version of this essay first appeared in Fortune on February 16, 2018.