Donald Trump released an immigration-reform plan this weekend that may be the most aggressively restrictionist immigration policy proposal since the Progressive Era. As NPR summarizes, Trump would:
- Build a wall across the southern border paid for by Mexico
- Seize all remittance payments “derived from illegal wages” until Mexico agrees to pay for the wall
- Implement a nationwide e-verify system and defund sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with the federal law
- End birthright citizenship (currently enshrined in the 14th Amendment of the Constitution)
- Crack down on H-1B visas, which are designated for high-skilled STEM employees, by requiring companies to hire from the pool of unemployed domestic workers first
- Create criminal penalties for people who overstay a visa
Trump then topped himself in an interview by saying he’d deport all illegal immigrants in the country.
You’ve got to give Trump one thing: he’s a uniter, not a divider—which is to say, Trump has managed to bring thinkers from across the political spectrum, from The Federalist‘s Rich Cromwell to Salon‘s Joan Walsh, to condemn his plan as the blueprint for a xenophobic police state. And that’s what it is. Trump’s proposal is laced with measures that target legal as well as illegal immigrants. And it lays the grounds for a police state in that the measures required to enforce it, from the financial snooping it would take to identify and cut off remittences to the police effort necessary to deport the estimated illegal population of 11 million people, would lead to unparalleled government intrusion into the lives of law-abiding Americans of every background.
And yet, the usual paradox: the more Donald Trump is condemned by traditional political outlets (even on the right), the more his stock seems to rise. Why—and what’s to be done?
Once the politicians, commentators, and activists that profess to care so much about immigrants have thrown a few more punches at the terrible Trump and his evil immigration plan, they should go on to beat up those really to blame for this plan: themselves. The current potency of the “stop immigration at all costs” sentiment is the direct result of thirty years of immigration policy failure. And if something isn’t done to change that soon, the American public may demand truly decisive action to shut off immigration. It’s happened before.
The last time American immigration levels stood as high as they do right now was during 1880–1924, the years of the so-called “Great Wave.” American immigration laws had always been liberal—in fact, during our nation’s first century, the phrase “immigration acts” usually referred to a set of laws designed to attract foreigners. From 1880 on, however, new technology (the steel-hulled, steam-powered ocean liner, which made crossing the Atlantic much quicker and cheaper), the growing allure of a more settled, more prosperous America, oppression abroad (particularly that aimed the Jews of czarist Russia and Eastern Europe), and economic malaise elsewhere (notably in Italy and Greece) combined to drive an unprecedented number of immigrants to these shores. It was a migration like nothing the country had seen, as 27 million new immigrants joined a nation that in 1880 had only 50 million citizens.
The Great Wave gave us many enduring American institutions. Broadway musicals were the brain-children of displaced Eastern European Jews. The city of Chicago and the entire midwest were transformed and developed by the newcomers. Chinese immigrants altered the life and culture of the West Coast.
But while the Wave had been cresting, other intellectual and social undercurrents had begun circulating in America: a populist nativism, national security concerns (about Eastern European radicals, and after 1917, Communists in particular), and a growing, international movement toward restrictionism. Do any of these conditions sound familiar?
Meanwhile, America’s pro-immigration forces failed to make the case persuasively to preserve the status quo. They were unable to tailor the traditional defenses of liberal American immigration to new political realities, or to develop new narratives defending it instead. The ardent restrictionists built their case, over years of small measures (such as banning convicts) or failed bills (such as a vetoed 1913 bill imposing a literacy test on would-be immigrants). Moderate America began to pay attention. Some were swayed by this, some by that. The 1911 report of the Senate’s Dillingham Commission gave an official stamp of approval to “scientific”, Progressive racist theories (that were in fact no more than gussied-up a priori assumptions). World War I sealed for many the idea of the foreigner as menace. And afterward the United States, struggling economically, was anticipating another wave of immigration from Europe that it wanted no part of. Slowly, a restrictionist coalition assembled that would prove unstoppable.
In 1924, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act. It set national-origin quotas for immigrants from each country at 2 percent of the number of foreign-born persons from that country recorded in the U.S. during the 1890 census—effectively barring mass immigration from South, Central, and Eastern Europe—and outright barred immigration from Asia. Not at all coincidentally, those were the areas which had fed the Great Wave, but whose populations were considered too poor and too culturally foreign to be assimilable en masse. Furthermore, an overall cap was set on immigration from the Eastern Hemisphere at 150,000 per year. Immigration halved within one year after implementation, and declined more than 90 percent over a decade, from 700,000-plus immigrants in 1924 to 29,400 in 1934.
The “golden door” was slammed shut. The restrictionist consensus proved so strong that even in the wake of the Holocaust the U.S. was unwilling to throw that door open again to significant numbers of refugees.
America’s attitude toward immigration wouldn’t liberalize at all until 1965, and in fact, legal immigration from the Old World never recovered. In ’65, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which approximately doubled the absolute cap on immigration to 290,000 persons, and abolished the quota system in favor of emphases on jobs and family reunification. Significantly, Latin American nations were exempted from the per-country cap, though still subject to an overall quota; it was at this time that immigration from south of the border began in a serious way. But demand soon outstripped the legal supply of visas—which was still low by historical standards—and thus began the wave of illegal immigration from Latin America.
The roots of our current immigration quagmire lie in the failed attempts to remedy that situation—particularly the failure of the compromise of 1986. That year, the Democratic House and Republican Administration hammered out one of the big bargains that were the hallmark of domestic policy in the Reagan years. The basic terms of this one were simple: amnesty in return for border enforcement. The resulting Simpson-Mazzoli Act had many problems, including the reliance on falsifiable documents for worker verification and insufficient border-patrol measures. But the biggest problem was that it took the sensible, intuitive solution to America’s immigration problem—amnesty for border enforcement—and failed to deliver on the second half of it, thus poisoning the well of public support for reform for a generation.
Within a year, as immigration scholar Michael C. LeMay points out in his survey of American immigration history, Guarding the Gates, illegal immigration was back at its pre-amnesty levels. It isn’t at all surprising, therefore, that when Congress revamped the legal immigration system in 1990, public support was insufficient to get quota numbers high enough to meet demand. (Instead, the cap was lifted to 675,000 per year, and the “visa lottery” introduced.) Illegal immigration continued to fill the gap (some would say, “and then some”), and we’ve been living with a two-tier system since.
There are great costs to this dysfunction. It hurts illegal immigrants, who can never fully participate in the economic and civic life of their new country; American citizens, who see the respect for the rule of law, particularly at the local level, eroding before their eyes; and the nation as a whole, which is deprived of the full dynamism and participation of its new residents. This is not to mention the follow-on problems of the illegal immigration racket—the abuses of coyote smugglers, the empowerment of cartels, and the like.
Frustration with this mess is what’s buoying Trump’s candidacy. “Comprehensive immigration reform” has become code for a repeat of the 1986 bill, strong on amnesty but weak on enforcement. And Americans across the spectrum understand that illegal immigration followed by amnesty would lead to more illegal immigration, as people worldwide begin for some reason to suspect that illegal immigration to America is really just delayed legal immigration. Larger and larger sections of the American public, not seeing a better option on the table, begin to think that a repeat of 1924 looks better and better. An ultra-restrictionist policy would be expensive, unwieldy, and a sharp break with current practice, sure—but that’s nothing the American voters haven’t demanded (and gotten) before.
Fortunately, there are better options available, options that our failed immigration-activist class needs to start embracing and explaining in order to avert disaster. There’s a middle ground between uncontrolled illegal immigration and total restrictionism that most Americans can see and, given some leadership, would gladly occupy. Firstly, due to the failure of the amnesty-first, border security-second plan in the 1980s, border enforcement must come first this time for another grand bargain to be politically credible. For this to work, a new law would have to differentiate between new border crossers and illegals already here (as, for instance, the President’s current executive order on DREAMers claims to be able to do) long enough for enforcement to become visible and credible. Secondly, once the border is secure—visibly and in a way the public can trust—then for humanitarian and civic reasons, amnesty should follow. Thirdly, any deal would be more palatable and more workable if it were balanced with increased levels of legal immigration. This would make it clear to the Left that the policy in question wasn’t about restricting opportunity so much as bringing the question of who receives that opportunity under public scrutiny. It would also allow the Right to reframe the immigration narrative in terms of opportunity and economic dynamism. And it would presumably cut down on some, though not all, of the “draw” factors of illegal immigration by meeting much of the economy’s need for new workers.
Of course, these compromises form a thicket of thorny issues. Where would we set the exact level of legal immigration? How would we adjust that number, so that it could respond to events—for instance, going up when the economy’s good, and coming down when unemployment’s a problem? Where would the new immigrants come from? What types of immigrants would get first preference? And so on. Well, dealing with tricky policy issues like these is what we pay Congress for, and advising them and lobbying them when they get it wrong is what immigration specialists and activists exist to do. This is a democracy, after all; these matters need to be hashed out in the public sphere (and ratified afterward indirectly by the voters). Right now they’re settled through a parallel system of coyotes, immigrants hiding in the shadows, and once-a-generation executive or legislative amnesties.
Unfortunately, for those of us who want to avoid restrictionism, our leaders have not put these better options on the table. By now, the public knows that the Left doesn’t really want to secure the border. Liberals have not put forward a plan that would credibly do so in a generation. They have demonized those who have called for one. And worst of all, Democrats have spent a decade more-or-less openly salivating about the prospect of an immigrant-fueled “emerging Democratic majority” stretching endlessly into the distance. This tainted the whole project of reintegrating America’s illegal population as a partisan ploy. (No, the Left’s subsequent regret, now that it appears the “emerging majority” won’t happen, doesn’t wipe away the problems this rhetoric created.)
Both parties have botched the case for increased legal immigration. Business-friendly Republicans have allowed it to be sullied by supporting measures like the H-1B and H-2 visas, which tie the visas of foreign workers to their employers. If workers holding these visas quit, or are fired, they have to leave the country. As I’ve written before, these visas hit the trifecta of bad policy: they’re used to displace American workers at cheaper rates, they facilitate exploitation of the immigrants in question, and they deprive the national economy of the full dynamism unfettered immigrants offer. Such measures divert political momentum from healthy reform and confirm the worst suspicions of the antis.
These flawed approaches are compounded by other, rhetorical problems. (A tip for immigration reformers: it’s generally not helpful to portray middle America as a bunch of mouth-breathing xenophobes when you’re canvassing for popular support.) And the net result is that neither party enjoys the public’s confidence enough to reform the situation. The last time the Republicans tried, the John McCain and George W. Bush-backed 2007 Immigration Reform Act foundered amid a public outcry. For their part, the Democrats were unable even to touch the subject in 2009-10, despite controlling a large majority in both houses of Congress and the Presidency. What’s more, popular opinion was right both times—the proposals being circulated would have exacerbated, not fixed, our current immigration problems. The current generation of would-be reformers has earned the public’s distrust.
That’s a shame. The basic compromise that’s been circulating since 1986—border enforcement, then amnesty, with a reformed legal immigration scheme—still seems suited to solve our problems, if implemented properly this time. Better yet, sold as a package, it’s politically appealing to most Americans. The main points of the resulting bill would look like this: better enforcement of the borders, including cracking down on visa overstayers and implementing the e-Verify program to screen new hires for legal status, matched with amnesty for the otherwise law-abiding among those already here (we cannot, logistically, deport 11 million people, nor would it be right to). And above all else, we need a generous new legal immigration policy, grounded in an honest and reasonable estimation of the level of legal immigration needed to sustain economic dynamism, pegged to changing economic conditions through a formula that would make it saleable to the skeptical but persuadable citizens of Middle America.
New immigration realities are creating space to try for another try at a bargain after the next election. The Latin immigration wave has begun to subside, as economic conditions in Mexico and other Latin American countries have improved. China and India overtook Mexico as the leading sources of U.S. immigrants starting in 2013. Both of our two new leading immigrant populations are relatively well-educated, relatively affluent, and well-positioned for a 21st century economy. The time is ripe, then, for a pivot to a new national immigration policy for that century—one more honest to our citizens, more generous to our immigrants, and more beneficial to the national interest.
But due to the failure of our elites, we couldn’t be further from reform. Instead, the left has embraced the satisfying but ultimately dead-end rhetorical position that anyone who doesn’t embrace amnesty, in total and without conditions, is a racist. Centrist Republicans are cowed and silent. And we’re all stuck with the Donald.