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Sen. Jeff Flake to Trump: "low-skilled" immigrants make America great

The senator’s argument is low-key kind of radical — even for a pro-business Republican.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) Holds Town Hall In Mesa, Arizona Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) has been one of President Donald Trump’s most vocal Republican critics in Congress — to the point where Trump is all but endorsing a primary challenge against him in 2018. But instead of being cowed, Flake is launching a broad attack on Trump over the president’s core issue: immigration.

In an op-ed for the New York Times on Friday, Flake talks about Manuel Chaidez, a key hand on Flake’s family’s ranch when Flake was growing up. He makes it clear that Chaidez wouldn’t have been allowed to come to the US under the Trump-endorsed Raise Act, which would slash family-based legal immigration and limit employment-based immigration to “high-skilled” immigrants. (The Raise Act isn’t expected to pass Congress, but defenders hope it will pave the way to more limits on legal immigration.)

And he makes it clear that Chaidez, more broadly, isn’t the sort of immigrant that Trump and company say they want — but that he was the sort of American they should want.

His capacity for hard, backbreaking work was his sole credential in life. By no Washington bureaucrat’s estimation would he have been judged a “high-value immigrant.” He didn’t speak much English. He didn’t come from money. He hadn’t finished high school. He had no technological innovation to his credit, nor had he started a business.

In other words, count Manuel among the 99 percent of immigrants who have ever come to this country, including many of our ancestors, the “wretched refuse” who got here as fast as they could and who made this country what it is once they arrived.

All Manuel had to recommend him was his strength and his belief that America was a place where, by the labor of your hands, you could create a life for yourself. That is all, and that is everything.

The title of the op-ed is “We Need Immigrants With Skills, But Working Hard Is A Skill.” That’s both a rebuttal to the Raise Act itself, and to the broader way that policymakers tend to talk about legal immigration — separating people into the tranches of “family-based” immigration, “high-skilled” (professional) immigration, and “low-skilled” (manual labor and service industry) immigration.

As employers around the country — from farmers in California to the tourism sector in Michigan — have seen, “low-skilled” doesn’t necessarily mean jobs that are easy to fill. Even if the job doesn’t require a professional degree, willingness to do what the job requires is still a selective trait.

Flake is going way beyond a typical Republican call for guest workers

What’s especially interesting about Sen. Flake’s op-ed is that it breaks with the way that pro-business Republicans have typically defended “low-skilled” immigration.

The standard argument, one that you can still hear from Republicans like Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), is that America needs to bring in low-skilled workers to fill the needs of the labor market — to do the jobs Americans won’t do.

From this perspective, the ultimate goal is for American businesses to be able to fill their labor needs as quickly as possible. So this tends to be a case for flexible guest worker programs that will give employers and the government a lot of control over who gets to come here, and how long they get to stay — then send them back to their home countries when their visas are up.

Flake isn’t making that argument. He’s arguing that “low-skilled” immigrants are the kind of people that Americans should want to have as Americans — that they are worthy of being allowed to settle in the US permanently and raise families here.

From a policy perspective, that couldn’t be more different from the Raise Act, which seeks to make it all but impossible for someone to get permanent residency who hasn’t already been well-educated and professionally trained. But it’s also a very different conclusion from the immigration-reform proposals of George W. Bush, which were big on guest-worker programs but kept a firm wall between temporary guest workers and permanent immigrants.

The 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill that Flake helped write (as part of the “Gang of Eight”), which passed the Senate but was never taken up by the House, did make it possible for people who came as low-skilled workers to apply on their own to become permanent residents after a certain amount of time. But with the rise of Donald Trump, the Gang of Eight bill seems like a relic of a Republican Party that simply doesn’t exist anymore.

If Jeff Flake is going to continue to make the case for low-skilled immigrants as “Americans by choice,” not just as useful plugs to fill holes in the labor market, it could be the boldest policy stance he’s taken so far to halt his party’s Trumpish drift.