Column: Trump's timid, disappointing immigration proposal

AP Photo/Manuel Balce CenetaPresident Donald Trump speaks about modernizing the immigration system in the Rose Garden of the White House last week.

Three months ago, President Donald Trump declared his love for legal immigration and said he wanted people coming to the U.S. “in the largest numbers ever.” Last week the administration revealed exactly what he meant by that — and it is disappointing, to say the least.

Trump’s February promise may have sounded odd to those who see him as hostile to immigration. But there are at least two camps in Trump world.

One, call it the California contingent, believes that “our country is full,” as the president himself said an event in California last month. Its members basically want a big sign on the border that says, “No Vacancies.”

The other group, call it the New York contingent — one of its leading proponents is former Manhattan resident Jared Kushner, the president’s adviser and son-in-law — sees immigration as a source of growth, but wants that growth concentrated in the high-skilled areas of the economy. More nurses and fewer nannies, in other words. The sign they want on the border says, “Expert Help Wanted.”

There are two ways to settle the differences between factions. One is to focus only on their point of agreement: that there are too many low-skilled immigrants. This has essentially been the administration’s policy since California-contingent adviser Steve Bannon’s departure in August 2017.

It’s hard to claim it has worked. By targeting many poor and vulnerable immigrants, the policy further alienates moderates and progressives. And because it has failed to stem the inflow of undocumented immigrants, it fuels populist and conservative frustration with the president.

So it would seem the time is ripe for the second approach: the elusive grand bargain. Give both contingents some of what they want and force them to accept some of what they don’t. Allow more immigration than the California contingent would prefer, but not as much as the New York contingent would like. Crack down on undocumented workers — but through their employers. Enforce existing laws. If Nixon could go to China, was the thinking last week, then Trump can strike a grand bargain on immigration.

That’s not what happened. The policy unveiled last week would shift the preferences for legal immigration away from family and diversity and toward merit, but leave the overall level the same. It does not address the fate of the Dreamers, the 800,000 or so young people brought to the U.S. illegally when they were children, or the rest of the undocumented population. It is silent on expansion of the E-Verify system that hardliners (correctly) say discourages illegal immigration by making it more difficult for employers to hire undocumented workers.

The plan’s one innovation, a permanent fund for border security, is a silly maneuver that overemphasizes current politics. Democrats have long been willing to fund border security — and would be now if it weren’t for the administration’s harsh rhetoric about immigrants and immigration policy.

Far better would have been to adopt a comprehensive plan that radically increased the amount of merit-based immigration and fully implemented the E-Verify system. That second step would also bring into sharp relief the question of what to do about the undocumented population, estimated to be about 10.7 million in 2016.

There are a number of solutions to that problem. One, proposed by so-called “reformicon” Reihan Salam, would give amnesty to the current undocumented population but end family-sponsored immigration. Such a move would encourage the assimilation of the undocumented population. Another would be to combine the concept of Heartland visas with deferred enforcement and a path to legalization. Such a plan would allow undocumented residents who don’t qualify for the Dream Act to receive a similar deal if they got a job in declining communities.

Any such path to legalization should also require that undocumented immigrants learn English. Progressives often overestimate the role of race, and underestimate the role of language, in fueling working-class opposition to immigration.

I realize that proposals such as these would be subject to intense criticism from all sides. If anyone can weather such criticism, however, it’s Trump; above all else, I suspect, his base just wants some progress. When he announced his intentions three months ago to offer what sounded like a genuine compromise proposal on immigration, I implored Democrats to be open to it. I now beg the president to have the guts to make one.

Karl W. Smith is a former assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina’s school of government and founder of the blog Modeled Behavior.