America has long needed a sweeping overhaul of its immigration system. It'll have to keep waiting. A bill from Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia that President Donald Trump just endorsed contains a smart policy idea that has worked well for Canada but is otherwise intellectually bereft and deeply disappointing.
The smart idea is moving to a merit-based system that admits immigrants who are most likely to become productive residents by grading them on a point system based on education, work experience and language proficiency. While America must always accept vulnerable refugees, there is no reason broader immigration policy shouldn’t be akin to college admissions policies that value hard work, accomplishment, intelligence and diversity of backgrounds and experience. Yet there is disagreement.
This idea is attacked on the left as mean-spirited and, because of the language provision, racially motivated. But facility with English is already an immigration requirement – and such language skills are common throughout the world. English is either the primary or secondary language in 94 nations. More than one-third of residents in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Croatia, Latvia and Italy speak English. And as The New York Times reported in 2007, “English dominates the world as no language ever has.”
The idea is attacked on the right because of the belief that legal immigrants take jobs away from Americans. While economists are divided over whether low-skilled unauthorized immigrants displace American workers, there is no question that legal immigrants are a huge engine of economic growth. A 2016 report found that more than half the 87 privately held U.S. startups valued at $1 billion or more were founded by immigrants from a long list of nations including South Africa, Israel, China, India, Canada and the United Kingdom.
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But the most problematic thing about Trump’s preferred plan is that while it recognizes the valued of skilled workers, it would cut the number of immigrants in half, allowing about 500,000 green cards to be issued a year, down from the present roughly 1 million. That is a recipe for shrinking the economy.
The plan also ignores how much the aging U.S. work force needs big infusions of new workers because of U.S. birth rates being at historic lows.
And it ignores the agriculture industry’s concern about securing enough farm workers.
Finally, the Cotton-Perdue measure does nothing to bring 11 million unauthorized immigrants out of the shadows with a path to earn citizenship, punting on the biggest immigration issue of all.
The good news is that the bill appears dead on arrival in the Senate because of opposition from moderate Republicans. The bad news is that the chance of a grand immigration compromise seems more distant than ever, with many millions of Americans firm believers that immigration hurts the nation and many other millions of Americans believing such views are driven by rank bigotry.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O'Neill, D-Massachusetts, managed to win bipartisan approval of a sweeping immigration reform measure with dozens of votes to spare.
In polarized 2017, alas, the very idea of such cooperation on immigration seems like a fantasy.