The costs of a bro­ken im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - INSIGHT - By Demetrios G. Pa­pademetriou

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

An im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem must be fo­cused at­tract­ing tal­ented im­mi­grants.

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.

Ra­mon Espinosa / As­so­ci­ated Press

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.

Brett Coomer / Houston Chron­i­cle 2017

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.

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