In President Trump’s first State of the Union address, he started his comments on immigration by saying, “For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities.” This set the stage for his usual immigration rhetoric, which focused on horrible crimes that immigrants have committed. Trump, of course, ignored the fact that immigrants are less likely to be criminals than native-born Americans.
Since September 2016, when Trump announced that he planned to end DACA, there has been a huge effort to show that Dreamers should be allowed to stay in the United States. Dreamers are undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. They grew up in the U.S. and even by conservative standards are model citizens. Those who qualify for DACA don’t have criminal records and they are either currently in school, have graduated, or have served in the military.
On January 25, the White House outlined their plan for immigration which Trump further elaborated on during his State of the Union address. His plan has four pillars, which includes a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers. This will triple the number of those protected under the Obama-era DACA program, which did not actually include a pathway to citizenship. So, it would seem that even Trump is getting on board with saving Dreamers.
DACA has opened the door for a conversation about what kind of immigrants we want in the United States. In the State of the Union, Trump stated, “It is time to begin moving towards a merit-based immigration system––one that admits people who are skilled, who want to work, who will contribute to our society.” The idea behind merit-based immigration is to prioritize high-skilled workers (those with degrees or capital) over low-skilled workers.
The argument for merit-based immigration is that those who are highly-skilled will come to the United States, create jobs and wealth, and won’t become dependent on government assistance. And since they’re interested in more professional tracks, the logic follows that high-skilled immigrants won’t vie for the same jobs as low-skilled American workers.
This might sound like a nice ideal to many Americans who think that immigrants are stealing their jobs. But what does merit-based immigration really look like?
Advocates for merit-based immigration are quick to point to Canada and Australia as case studies to emulate. However, Tamar Jacoby, the president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a nonprofit that advocates for immigration reform, said “The fact is that even the countries that started with a system like that, invented the system like that, Canada and Australia, have over the past 20-25 years moved away from a strictly diploma-based and skill-based system.” Evaluating an immigrant’s merits and boiling them down into a points-based system isn’t exactly a science.
In fact, it can be hard to even define what qualifies as merit. Will this be based on education levels, amount of capital, promises to start businesses and hire American workers? How will federal bureaucrats check to make sure high-skilled immigrants follow through on their stated plans?
And what kind of national prejudices and preferences will ultimately play into which immigrants get priority? Are immigrants from Norway inherently more skilled than those from other countries?
After Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries as “shithole” countries, White House spokesman Raj Shah said, “Like other nations that have merit-based immigration, President Trump is fighting for permanent solutions that make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation.” The rhetoric around merit-based immigration fuels the false idea that high-skilled workers will contribute to the economy in ways that low-skilled workers cannot.
A 2016 study by New American Economy, a coalition of business leaders and mayors who support immigration reform, found that immigrants were twice as likely to start their own business than native-born citizens. About 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants or children of immigrants. People often cite companies like Google, Tesla, and eBay as proof that we need immigrants. And while it’s true that these businesses would likely not exist as we know them without immigration to the United States, this argument still plays into the rhetoric that high-skilled workers contribute more than low-skilled workers. It completely ignores all the other small businesses that immigrants start. Think flower shops, cleaning companies, nail salons, and yes, even taco trucks. All of these small businesses create jobs, wealth, and contribute to the economy.
Besides that, the fact is that we’re going to need low-skilled workers as the boomer generation ages out. David Card, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that “Ten years from now, there are going to be lots of older people with relatively few low-skilled workers to change their bedpans. That’s going to be a huge problem.” A merit-based immigration system will completely ignore this growing need. But as we’ve seen in the past, just because there is no legal path to fill that need doesn’t mean that immigrants won’t come.
The idea that only high-skilled, educated immigrants can add value is false. The United States already benefits from both types of immigrants, and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise.
Adriana Vazquez (@vazquezadriana) is a Young Voices Advocate currently living in the Bay Area.
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