Immigration Reform, the Administration’s Plan, and What the Political Moment Will Bear

Donald Kerwin
Center for Migration Studies

Editorial credit: Joseph Sohm /

Immigration Reform, the Administration’s Plan, and What the Political Moment Will Bear 

In his first State of the Union address, President Trump set forth his framework for a “fair compromise” on immigration. Yet the president’s plan is neither fair, nor a compromise. Instead, it would fundamentally alter the US immigration system – and the nation’s identity – for the worse. It would decimate US families, spend wastefully on a border wall, diminish diversity, and weaken protections for asylum-seekers and unaccompanied minors. You might call this plan the nativist version of comprehensive immigration reform. Not surprisingly, the president badly mischaracterized the current immigration system and described immigrants as unskilled, criminal, and a security threat. He also shamelessly associated Central American child migrants – many of whom fled gang recruitment and violence – with their victimizers.

The president’s “compromise” would provide a path to citizenship for many Dreamers, a concession apparently to the American people who overwhelmingly support this result. However, the plan ignores the nine million persons who would remain undocumented. Under the plan, these residents – which include 6.9 million US workers and nearly 4 million parents of US citizens and lawful permanent residents (LPRs) – would presumably be removed by a deportation force bolstered by thousands of additional border patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. In reality, of course, most of this population would be driven deeper into the shadows – where they could be exploited and preyed upon – until their situation is taken up by a less cynical administration and Congress.

Even though not politically realistic at the moment, immigrant supporters should push back with their own wish list, including a path to legal status for the 9 million, and should let the American people decide which approach they prefer. Polls have consistently shown that Americans of all political stripes support a path to citizenship for a broad swath of the undocumented population.

Many in Congress have reacted appropriately to the president’s proposal by dismissing it. For now, the best path forward would be passage of the DREAM Act as standalone legislation. However, the most achievable goal would be a parsed down agreement that provides a path to citizenship for the 2.2 million Dreamers, with strategic enhancements that would supplement the massive, multi-year investments already made in border enforcement.

The agreement should not include funding for the 2,000 mile wall. According to a report by the Center for Migration Studies (CMS), nearly twice as many temporary visitors (non-immigrants) overstayed their visas from 2008-2015, than illegally crossed the southern border. A wall will not stop visa overstays. Meanwhile in recent years, border crossers have fallen to their lowest level since the Nixon administration. Why should taxpayers spend $25 billion to fulfill what White House chief of staff John Kelly characterized (euphemistically) as a “not fully informed” campaign promise? Fencing along heavily crossed routes is necessary, but a 2,000 mile wall is a solution in search of a problem. Moreover, many border residents from all walks of life oppose the militarization of their communities – which a wall would exacerbate – for social, economic, and civil liberties reasons. They will certainly further resent the heavy hand of the federal government if it embarks on a massive seizure of private property to build an unnecessary wall.

Nor should an immigration agreement include the president’s plan to eviscerate family-based immigration. The administration’s proposal would replace a system which – albeit in need of reform and characterized by excessive backlogs and delays – has strengthened the nation’s social fabric, facilitated immigrant integration, and promoted economic growth by bringing in workers of all skill levels. This system – which has served the common good – should be made more efficient, not dismantled.

In a disturbing irony, the president and many Republican legislators – whose platforms have long championed the family – now pursue immigration policies that devalue and would tear apart US families. The administration proposes to eliminate family-based immigration for all persons except the spouses and minor children of US citizens and LPRs – and on demonstrably false grounds. The president and the mainstream media have taken to parroting the language of restrictionist groups by characterizing family-based immigration as “chain migration.” Yet the administration’s plan would eliminate family-based immigration categories – none of which permit the admission of extended family – for which there are hard numerical limits and, in many cases, multi-year backlogs. US citizens and LPRs cannot bring in – as the president claimed – “virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.”

As the Council on Foreign Relations and others have argued, the United States should seek to attract more highly skilled foreign workers. Yet it should also be acknowledged that the current immigration system produces the same rate of skilled workers as the native born population. As an analysis by CMS’s Robert Warren shows, the 41 percent of skilled workers among the legally present (mostly LPR) foreign-born population equals the percent of US born skilled workers. Moreover, the percentage of skilled, legally present African workers (51 percent) and Haitians (43 percent) – two groups the president recently derided – exceeds that of US-born workers. Indeed, the percentage of skilled, legally resident African workers exceeds the percentage of US-born skilled workers in any US state. Finally, research shows that many putatively “unskilled” immigrants are actually highly-skilled, but lack formal credentials and degrees. Skilled or unskilled, they do hard and honest work that the US economy needs.

The White House immigration plan overreaches to put it mildly. In light of the March 5th time limit imposed by the president, a scaled back deal is the most responsible approach. Once a smaller package is enacted, future Congresses can take the time to reform the broader immigration system, which will be a formidable task, even in the best of political circumstances. And members of this Congress can proceed knowing that they did the right thing by not sacrificing undocumented youth and the nation’s identity at the altar of its poisonous immigration politics.

An abbreviated version of this commentary first appeared in the The Hill on January 31, 2018.