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  • Victor C. Bolles

RAISE-ing a Ruckus

At a raucous press briefing presidential adviser Stephen Miller announced the White House’s proposal to update America’s legal immigration process. The Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act will be sponsored in Congress by Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue. The RAISE Act will strictly limit the immigration of unskilled workers, reduce the ability of legal US residents to bring in their extended family and eliminate the Diversity Visa lottery. The RAISE Act only deals with immigrants coming to the United States as legal residents (green card holders) and does not deal with the issue of undocumented (illegal) immigrants.

America is a land of immigrants. My ancestors immigrated to North America. Yours did, too. Even Native Americans' ancestors immigrated here across an ice age generated land bridge (or other method yet unknown). Many came to flee from religious oppression in Europe. Others came fleeing famine or war. Some came in first class cabins and some came in steerage.

But America was not always welcoming to immigrants. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited citizenship to free white persons of good character. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 blocked the immigration of Chinese and other Asians. The emergency quota Act (1921) and the Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number immigrants by national origin to 3% of the number of such residents in the 1910 census (i.e.; before the waves of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe). The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 eliminated the quotas based on the National Origins Formula and created a new formula that maintained country limits but provided exceptions based on family relationships and skills. Conservative Democrats had insisted on including family relationships because they thought it would promote a continuance of the then current racial structure of the country. But the family relationships exception led to chain migration where one family member opens the door to a host of relatives. Chain migration totally frustrated the intent of the country limits and has led to the much more ethnically diverse United States that we now live in.

So the welcoming Lady Liberty of Emma Lazarus’ sonnet was not actually so welcoming and laws aimed at maintaining the racial and ethnic structure of the country have had the opposite effect. Rapidly changing demographics can be disruptive to a society leading to a backlash by those that feel that they have been displaced. While we shouldn't go back the old racist quota system, we should avoid having an immigration policy that purposefully disruptive to our society.

The RAISE Act will cut back on the types of family relationships that qualify for the exceptions to visa limits and include a skills-based merit system that will cut back on lower-skilled immigrants. Critics claim this is nothing more than disguised racism designed to appease President Trump’s base of “deplorables”. They scoffed at Miller’s assertion that they wanted to limit lower-skilled workers in order to preserve employment opportunities for US ethnic minorities. In the press conference there was a heated battle of studies on the impact of foreign-born workers on low wage jobs. Various studies have come to opposing opinions on the impact of the immigration of low skilled workers but whatever the impact it can’t be that great or the outcomes of the studies would be clearer.

Nevertheless, a Bureau of Labor Statistics study shows that the unemployment rate of foreign-born ethnic minorities is lower than for natives so there may be something to Miller’s contention (white foreign-born workers on the other hand had a higher unemployment rate than natives).

It was Mr. Miller’s contention in the press conference that the RAISE Act was a very focused policy that only affected green card holders and was not intended to resolve other immigration issues such as undocumented aliens and Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA). But if the goal of the RAISE Act is to strengthen the US economy the Trump Administration needs to address the issue of temporary workers in this bill or in a parallel bill.

Two vital sectors of the US economy are having severe problems finding workers and the impact is slowing down US economic growth. The Los Angeles Times reports that farmers are paying up to $16/hour for agricultural workers and that this cost is being reflected in higher food prices and shortages. While $16/hour is not a bad wage, it may not be very good for a seasonal worker living in the US trying to stretch his harvest bonus through a long winter. But if he were spending the winter back in Mexico or Central America his earnings would go a lot further.

Likewise, US new home sales are falling because construction companies cannot find enough workers to build the houses. The Bracero program after WWII was relatively successful until the unions shut it down, A well-designed temporary worker program that assures that the incoming workers are well treated and fairly paid should be able to relieve this bottleneck and allow the US economy to expand.

Another provision of the proposed bill would limit refugees to 50,000 a year. Any limit on refugees, however, should allow the President the flexibility to respond to future crises the size of which we cannot predict (such as the influx of Vietnamese refugees after the end of the Viet Nam War).

Finally, the RAISE Act would eliminate the diversity lottery program that randomly selects 55,000 people around the world to come to the US in the name of diversity (they do have to pass some background checks). Diversity for diversity's sake is senseless and under the current system these new arrivals would then be allowed to bring in a slew of their relatives as well which would greatly increase the impact of such a program (for a more complete discussion of diversity, please see my June 16, 2016 post, On Diversity). Rather than randomly selecting people for some vague notion such as diversity, the visas reserved for the lottery could be added to the merit based visa program. The old limits were set when the United States had a smaller population and are out of date. The US is less welcoming on a per capita basis than other countries using a merit based system such as Canada and Australia.

So with some minor changes, the RAISE Act would be a step forward in developing a reasoned and principled immigration policy (of course the hardest part is yet to come). Now it is up to the inept Republican controlled Congress to pass this proposal. You might think it difficult to get bipartisan support for any Trump proposal. But in reality, President Trump should not take credit for this bill (nor should Mr. Miller). It is an almost exact copy of the 1995 recommendation of the Commission on Immigration Reform commissioned by President Bill Clinton and chaired by noted liberal, Barbara Jordan. The only thing really bad about this bill is that President Trump chose the annoying Mr. Miller to present it.

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