For years, the major talking point of anti-immigrant politicians and activists was that they don’t oppose legal immigration; they just resent undocumented immigrants breaking the law. But on Wednesday, the Trump administration finally stopped pretending and endorsed a measure by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA) to slash legal immigration in half.
Sent out to defend the idea to the press was White House policy adviser Stephen Miller, a longtime Senate staffer for Jeff Sessions, who before becoming attorney general was one of Congress's biggest hardliners on immigration.
In 2016, Miller appeared on a radio show with now-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. Bannon mused that "the beating heart of the [immigration] problem … is not illegal immigration … we’ve looked the other way on this legal immigration that’s kinda overwhelmed the country."
Miller agreed: “It's mind-boggling” — and posited a theory where the US oscillates between “immigration-on” periods of heavy migration to the US and “immigration-off” periods of more restrictions. Now Miller and Trump have their chance to make the late 2010s and 2020s into an “immigration-off” period.
The proposal will almost certainly fail — it’d need the support of every Republican and eight Democrats in the Senate, which it absolutely will not get — and it’s a good thing too. It’s a proposal that promises to brutalize and harm the world’s poorest people and dramatically damage the American economy. Its passage would be a humanitarian catastrophe, and the administration’s arguments for it are nonsense.
What the “RAISE Act” would do
The overarching goal of the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act (RAISE; get it?) is to slash immigration to the US dramatically, from about 1 million people per year to a little over 500,000. It doesn’t touch temporary guest worker visas like H-1B or H-2A; it’s mostly concerned with who can, and cannot, get green cards, and thus permanent residency.
The bill eliminates the roughly 138,100 annual spots for adult children and siblings of US citizens, as well as the currently unlimited visas available to adult parents of US citizens. Spouses and minor children of US citizens and permanent residents could still get in, but family-based immigration would be slashed dramatically. If you’re a US resident with a sick, elderly parent, they could get a visa — but only a temporary one.
It would also totally eliminate the Diversity Visa program, which lets in 50,000 people a year and is designed to help people in countries that send relatively few immigrants. The program is one of the main ways that Africans are able to immigrate to the US; about 24 percent of African immigrants are admitted through the diversity visa, compared to 5 percent of all immigrants.
The bill would also slash the annual number of refugees allowed from the Obama administration’s 110,000 figure down to 50,000. That means fewer people escaping war and political persecution in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere would be able to arrive in the US. Some of the most desperate people seeking admission would be turned away.
It would hold the number of employment-based permanent visas available constant, at 140,000. But it would replace the current system used to select people for those visas with a "points" system, where applicants earn points for their education level, job offers in the US, age, English-language ability, and so forth, and only immigrants who meet a certain threshold would be eligible to come. The US government would sort through the top points getters and vet a subset of them to come.
Cotton and Perdue project that overall, immigration would fall from slightly over a million to 637,960 in the first year (a 41 percent drop) and to 539,958 by the 10th year (about a 50 percent reduction). That’s the goal: to use a variety of tools to keep more people out of the United States.
This would be a disaster
Reducing immigration to the United States is a terrible idea. It’s not even politically popular, contrary to conventional wisdom, but more importantly, it does not serve any compelling purpose. And cutting down on immigration definitely does not give Americans a raise.
Immigration, whether high- or low-skilled, is unquestionably a boon for the American economy. Even George Borjas, the strongly anti-immigration Harvard economist whom Miller and others love to cite, finds that the 92.4 percent of native-born Americans with a high school degree or greater get higher wages as a result of immigration spurring economic growth. The people whose wages do fall tend to be earlier waves of immigrants — who are in direct competition with new immigrants, which native workers usually are not.
And higher wages aren’t the only benefit. Immigration spurs Americans to get more education. Having more immigrants around to do domestic work induces native-born women to join the workforce, spurring economic growth and improving their lives. For Americans who own homes, immigration increases property values.
Basically the only American-born group that you could even plausibly argue are harmed is high school dropouts. This is a fairly tiny group, but it’s not even clear they are harmed. Research by the University of Bologna's Gianmarco Ottaviano and UC Davis's Giovanni Peri finds that immigrants help the wages of even low-skilled American workers.
Think of it this way: Many low-skilled immigrants don't have a great grasp of English early on. That, right there, is a skill that even high-school dropouts born in the US have over them. When low-skilled immigrants come in, they can take jobs like dishwashing or warehouse stocking that require less language skill, and American-born workers can be moved up to being waiters or sales associates at stores, getting a raise in the process.
All told, Ottaviano and Peri find that high school dropouts see wages rise 0.6 percent as a result of immigration. Berkeley’s David Card, in a famous 1990 paper, found that even the Mariel boatlift — in which the Cuban government sent a sudden wave of about 125,000 people, disproportionately criminals and others the Cubans didn’t want around anymore, to Florida — didn’t depress wages for anyone, even people with a high school degree or less. That’s bananas. This was a totally bonkers migration event that no policymaker in their right mind would have planned, and it still worked out.
At the White House press briefing, Miller cited research by Borjas that supposedly debunked Card’s findings. But that research itself has been debunked. Borjas only found effects on the wages of high school dropouts — and that finding, as the Center for Global Development’s Michael Clemens found, was spurious. A bunch of low-paid workers happened to move into Miami at the time of the boatlift, and Borjas mistakenly interpreted that as the boatlift lowering the wages of people already there. “The data simply does not allow us to conclude that those Cubans caused a fall in Miami wages, even for low-skill workers,” Clemens concluded.
And those immigrants who were let in gained a lot. Clemens and fellow economists Claudio Montenegro and Lant Pritchett have estimated that moving from the Dominican Republic to the US can lead to a doubling of income; from Mexico, wages increase about 250 percent. The effects on the Marielitos were likely of that magnitude. Thousands and thousands of people were made dramatically better off — and few, if any, were made poorer.
Letting people come does a lot of good. But letting fewer in, or kicking them out, really doesn’t. Clemens, Ethan Lewis, and Hannah Postel recently studied the Bracero program, a guest worker visa lasting from 1942 to 1964 that allowed Mexican workers to travel and hold jobs on US farms. When the program was canceled, there was a sudden drop in the immigrant worker population in the US. Clemens, Lewis, and Postel wanted to see if that led, in turn, to an increase in wages for native workers.
It did not. Employers didn’t respond to a dearth of immigrants by increasing native wages; instead, they adopted more labor-saving technology and changed what crops they grew. “The starkest example is California tomato picking, where the excluded braceros were mostly replaced by mass-adoption of mechanized harvesters within just one year,” Clemens explains. “In crops where technologies didn’t exist for quick mechanization — like asparagus and fresh strawberries — exclusion of bracero caused sharp declines in production.”
Kick out the immigrants and you don’t get higher wages. You just get fewer strawberries, and poorer Mexican people with fewer opportunities.
Trump does not want to make US immigration like Canada’s
Even some opponents of lowering immigration levels support the portions of the RAISE Act that encourage high-skill immigration by adopting a "points system." You get points for speaking English, having an advanced degree, having job offers, etc., and if you get enough points, you can apply to get into the US.
Typically advocates of such systems praise their use in Canada and Australia, which do less family-based immigration but more skill-based immigration than the US.
But the RAISE Act, and the Trump administration more broadly, has no intention of making the US immigration system more like Canada’s.
For one thing, as Cato's Alex Nowrasteh notes, Canada and Australia let in vastly more immigrants than the US does. In 2013, Canada allowed in immigrants equal to 0.74 percent of its population. In Australia, the number was 1.1 percent. For the US, it was 0.31 percent.
Let’s think for a second about what adopting an immigration system like Canada’s or Australia’s would actually entail. As Nowrasteh points out, of the 140,000 employment-based green cards the US hands out annually, nearly half go to family members rather than employees themselves.
“If the Cotton-Perdue bill intended to copy Canada’s skills-based immigration system, then it would increase the number of annual employment-based green cards from the current level of about 75,000 to about 592,000 annually — a 7.9-fold increase in the number,” he writes. “If the Cotton-Perdue bill wanted to copy Australia’s skills-based immigration system then it would have to increase employment-based immigration to about 852,000 annually — an 11.4-fold increase.”
Canada and Australia even let in more family-based immigrants than the US does, as a share of their population, though they lean more toward immediate family members than distant relatives.
Reasonable people can disagree about how important it is that the US pivot toward having more high-skilled rather than low-skilled immigration. I personally think the issue is overblown; “low-skilled” immigrants who seek to work as nannies or cleaning staff can encourage high-skilled native-born US women to go to work. In a way, that makes the US workforce more skilled, just as letting in skilled immigrants would.
More to the point, immigration is a profound good for people in other countries who come here to enjoy higher wages, to escape political persecution, to be with family, etc. That’s an opportunity worth providing for immigrants regardless of their education level.
But make no mistake. The RAISE Act is not about merely shifting the kind of immigration to the US. It’s not about getting the US closer to Canada or Australia. It’s about cutting immigration, full stop. It’s about making Americans poorer, and denying people abroad a chance at a better life.