How to Modernize Immigration Laws
When I used to talk to candidate Donald Trump about immigration, I would tell him, Make sure your “big, beautiful wall” has plenty of gates for people to come here legally. President Trump’s new immigration initiative would achieve both goals — border security and a new system to admit the immigrants America needs most.
We’ve only waited some 50 years for this moment to have a national debate about how to modernize our immigration laws. Elvis was at the top of the charts back in 1965 when we passed the last overhaul, and if we don’t fix things, we will be governed by an antiquated 20th-century immigration system to deal with our labor needs and economic priorities through the middle of the 21st century.
Trump’s plan follows many of the recommendations made by my colleagues at The Heritage Foundation on how our immigration system should work. It starts with a principle that almost all economists would agree on: When selecting immigrants for visas out of a huge pool of people who want to come, why not admit immigrants based on the benefits they will bring to the United States rather than based on who they are related to.
The plan would exploit America’s unique and awesome opportunity. The United States is like an NFL team that every year can have every first-round draft pick. Most immigrants with exceptional skills and talents want to come to America. They don’t want to go to France or Brazil or Australia or Russia. Foolishly, we have turned them away.
It’s almost unfathomable that we have allowed our broken immigration system to prevail for so long without a rebuild. The table below shows that we select a much smaller percentage of our immigrants based on skills and talent than do other nations. In most nations, the share of immigrants admitted based on skills and merit is well over half the total. In America, only about 1 in 8 gain a visa based on their skills and talents.
This isn’t to say that those who are selected based on family connections or who come as refugees are not net contributors. Most are. Andrew Grove came to America as a refugee from behind the Iron Curtain in Hungary in the late 1950s with almost literally only the shirt on his back. He was a co-founder of Intel, one of America’s iconic technology companies. But we do know from decades of research that those who come with skills and education do better than those who don’t.
Under the Trump plan, the percentage of immigrants with college and advanced degrees would nearly double, according to the White House’s calculations. And many of these degrees will be in engineering, the sciences and technology. We need them.
The absolute number of immigrants coming would be roughly the same as today. But the quality would improve. America would still be a beacon for freedom and opportunity across the globe. The refugee program — providing a safe harbor to those who are escaping persecution — would be preserved. First in line to gain visas would still be immediate family members of American citizens.
“We want immigrants to come here,” Trump declared in his Rose Garden unveiling on the plan. “We cherish the open door.” The bill is a great way for the Republican Party to pivot on immigration: We want immigrants, but unlike Democrats, we think they should come legally, and we should prioritize what they can do for us and our some 300 million citizens already here.
This new immigration system could add at least $2 trillion to our economy over the next decade while reducing the national debt by $500 billion, according to White House estimates.
By shifting to younger immigrants, who come at the start of their working lives, the impact on Medicare and Social Security finances will be positive and will push off into the future the doomsday insolvency of these programs. Since many of these newcomers will start businesses — skilled immigrants have high levels of entrepreneurship — the number of job openings should rise, not fall. These immigrants won’t take jobs from Americans; they will create them.
In short, under the Trump immigration plan, America does good and does well.
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