The costs of a broken immigration system
The foundations of mainstream politics across the Western industrialized world have been shaken in ways not seen since the first half of the last century. The return of populism is at the epicenter of this upheaval.
More specifically, radical right-wing nativist populism, an ideology that has opposition to mass, if not most, immigration is at its core. Populism is driven by a combination of sociocultural, identity, ethno-religious, job competition and social-welfare concerns. The various strands of nativist populism also share anti-establishment, anti-elite and antiglobalization views.
President Trump’s America combines these attributes under his “America First” label.
Trump has displayed unerring instinct for tapping into his political base’s sense of real and perceived fear and grievances almost too numerous to list. They include labor market volatility and millions of jobs gone abroad, galloping growth in inequality, rapid cultural shifts and, perhaps most significantly, extraordinary anxiety about loss of control in a changing world.
Underpinning these forces of discontent are two powerful realities that Trump is exploiting with gusto: globalization and immigration.
His focus on globalization rests primarily on “unfair” trade agreements. For far too long, U.S. government and elites have worshiped at the feet of globalization, failing to acknowledge that it leaves many behind. More importantly, policymakers have failed to make deep, smart investments in education, training and incentives for business to help those left behind.
Immigration has become the touchstone not only for this president but some of his Cabinet officials. But here’s the rub. While there is no condoning the deeply offensive language the president uses when he talks about immigrants, there is much room for re-engineering elements of the U.S. immigration system and, as my colleague Doris Meissner argued last month, parts of the U.S. asylum system.
It’s instructive to look at where change is needed and where the administration and its opponents talk past each other.
It is a no-brainer that an immigration system must be focused on attracting talented immigrants. After all, the primary intent of immigration policy always has been to address labor market and broader economic needs. This translates into focusing on an immigrant selection system that rewards education, especially in science, technology, engineering and math fields, skills and experience.
Trump’s “merit-based” proposal has these characteristics at its core. But agreement, even tacit, disappears when merit-based proponents seek to increase visas for such workers by cutting family visas by similar numbers. But expanding the pie to accommodate Trump’s focus on merit without cutting family reunification is anathema to the White House, its congressional allies and, probably, large segments of the electorate.
Gaining control over illegal immigration is another dialogue of the deaf. No country can seriously claim that it has a functioning immigration system if it cannot control its borders and identify and remove illegally resident foreigners. In fact, nothing undermines the integrity of an immigration system more completely than rampant illegality, which corrodes the very trust the governed have in government. This fundamental loss of trust creates an enormous opening for populists.
Now, there is an enormous wrinkle in
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all of this. The unauthorized population in the United States, estimated around 11 million, grew mightily through decadeslong acts of commission and omission: most notably, the failure to adjust immigration laws to address surging labor demand and the failure to have more effective border controls and commitment to removing illegally resident immigrants.
The biggest failure of all may be Congress’ inability to also offer relief to certain deserving cohorts among the unauthorized migrants.
These failures have given Trump license to pressure Congress to fund his wall while he proceeds with deportations that lag behind those of his predecessor only because states, particularly California, and communities have limited cooperation with federal immigration enforcement.
Trump demonstrates what we have learned from his many counterparts in Europe and elsewhere: that immigration is both symptom and driver of the authoritarian governance model on which nativist populism thrives.
To remove some of the oxygen that gives such populism life, we need to be much more serious about: Addressing inequality, Investing in those who have systematically lost out to globalization,
Respecting the sovereign national right to determine who can enter, Remaining committed to our legal obligations — both domestic and international,
Following the rule of law, and Developing “safe spaces” where real conversations can take place about committing to an immigration system that enforces legal, safe and orderly practices and serves U.S. interests well.
If we can’t find the means to do so, political polarization and fragmentation will disrupt our politics even further and the illiberal tide will only grow. And fear and resentment will continue to deepen our already deep political fissures.
Three Honduran migrants huddle in a dry river bed amid tear gas fired by U.S. agents last Sunday near the border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico.
Demonstrators protested anti-immigrant policies and a Muslim travel ban instituted via executive order by the Trump administration last year at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston.