Trump’s immigration plan is a sound start for an ultimate compromise

As promised in the recent budget negotiations, the Senate is engaged in an open debate on the status of Dreamers, the young adults who were brought into the country as children illegally by their parents, and broader immigration reform and enforcement.

Trump’s proposed immigration plan does provide a starting point to accomplish an ultimate compromise that would better serve the national interests.

Out of a U.S. population of 326 million, 45 million are immigrants. One-quarter is illegal, and that has hardly changed in recent years. Declining birth rates in Mexico and elsewhere, better employment opportunities created by free-trade agreements and stronger enforcement slowed the inflow even before Trump became president.

U.S. vs. Canada

Canada faces challenges similar to ours — falling birth rates, skill shortages and a society defined by waves of immigrants from Europe and Asia — but places a much higher priority on employment needs in granting visas.

Canadians broadly embrace immigration as a positive force. However, the country has absorbed 35,000 Syrian refugees and experienced an anti-Muslim backlash in some communities, arguably similar to the cultural ambivalence in U.S. communities that supported Trump in 2016. Overall, the difference between Canada’s and America’s levels of acceptance appear to hinge on differences in the proportions of skilled and easily assimilable immigrants.

Read: Trump’s regulatory rollback for the U.S. economy is a dud — so far

American rules are complex, but about 65% of U.S. visas are granted based on family ties whereas only 15% are based on employment. The remainder is mostly through a lottery for under-represented countries and refugees.

Two groups

Immigrants tend to be concentrated among two groups: the elderly and those with less than a high school education, and those with more than a four-year college education — new arrivals doing jobs that not enough Americans are not trained to do in information technology, science and engineering or requiring other advanced degrees.

Overall, the immigrant population tends to be considerably older and less educated and employable than the native-born population and imposes large burdens on the social safety net. About half qualify for means-tested programs such as food stamps.

In an economy hard pressed by import competition and rapidly turning to robotics and artificial intelligence, immigrants exacerbate competition for jobs and downward pressure on wages for native Americans with a high school education or less, even as highly skilled immigrants benefit the economy overall.

Trump’s proposal

Trump’s proposal would increase visas for skilled immigrants, end chain immigration by limiting family visas to spouses and minor children, end the lottery and establish a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers.

He is demanding funds for a wall along the southern border and other measures to bolster enforcement and security. In many places along the border, the idea of a wall is opposed even among many of his conservative supporters. Farmers and ranchers understand that physical barriers are often not as effective or cost efficient as investments in high-tech surveillance and other deterrents.

Compromises offered by moderates in Congress generally water down Trump’s proposals to end the lottery system and chain immigration. Unless a politician or immigration advocate can justify green-card bingo or that an immigrant’s first cousin, through a visa granted to his aunt or grandmother, is worthy of special preference over an electrical engineer, the lottery and present family-reunification rules are difficult to justify on grounds of economic benefits and easing social tensions.

Liberal advocates of the Dreamers in Congress wish to separate their fate from broader immigration reform altogether. That would almost certainly put off reform, and addressing festering social tensions to some indefinite date in the future and is unlikely to muster the necessary majorities in Congress.

Conservatives are balking at establishing a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, and that may prove to be an equally unsustainable position.

The president should moderate his demands for physical barriers and compromise with the Democrats on the other issues — for example, accept a focused program to foster skills-based immigration from under-represented countries in exchange for strict limits on family reunification and ending the lottery, as recently suggested by a bipartisan group of 48 lawmakers.

Good immigration reform would serve the interests of all Americans, not just the powerful and privileged.

MarketWatch columnist Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland.

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