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The White House on October 8 released a list of “Immigration Principles and Policies” that President Trump says “must be included” in any legislation legitimizing President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Trump is cutting a deal: Congress gets DACA if Trump gets immigration reform.
Is it a good deal? No, unfortunately. But before getting into the details, it is worth briefly reviewing DACA and highlighting Trump’s key demands.
Summing up DACA: President Obama signed an executive action in June 2012 that let all illegal aliens who arrived in America before they were age 16 to apply for legal work permits, Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses, and made them eligible for earned income-tax credits—it gives recipients most of the privileges associated with citizenship. Enrollment must be renewed every two years.
Since 2012, nearly 800,000 illegal aliens have taken advantage of the program—most of them adults. In effect, DACA is renewable amnesty.
Depending upon how broadly Congress legislates on DACA, somewhere between 800,000 and 3.5 million people could be granted de facto amnesty, and given a pathway to citizenship—remember, not everyone who can enroll in DACA is enrolled. This is an enormous number of people, comparable in scale to the Reagan-era amnesty.
On the other side of the equation are President Trump’s demands. In exchange for DACA Trump wants funding for the wall (the House Homeland Security Committee has already allocated $10 billion for the wall); an extra 10,000 ICE officers, 1,000 immigration lawyers, and 370 judges to help clear the deportation backlog; legislative penalties for “sanctuary cities”; an E-Verify system to bar illegals from the job market; passage of the RAISE Act; and a number of other minor concessions.
Of these reforms, the RAISE Act is the most significant. Very briefly: the RAISE Act by Senators Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) would not only cut legal immigration into the United States by roughly 50 percent, it would break the cycle of chain-migration by giving priority to economically valuable immigrants as opposed to those who merely have family connections. If passed, the RAISE Act would be the most significant piece of immigration legislation since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ushered in the era of mass migration.
It is difficult to overstate the economic benefits of the RAISE Act, which are twofold. First, the legislation would reduce overall immigration levels significantly. Second, it would better-calibrate the type of immigrants arriving in the U.S.
Reducing the overall level of immigration is important because America’s economy does not need additional labor: the labor market is saturated as it is. Real unemployment remains high and there is no sense in exacerbating the problem. Further, fewer immigrants would help improve working conditions and wages for U.S. citizens. This has already begun in a few locations—the logic is sound and the effects are empirically demonstrable. And, of course, fewer low-skilled immigrants means fewer people on welfare.
The Act also ensures that America gets high-quality, skilled immigrants, by prioritizing people with valuable skills. These are the type of immigrants who are most likely to help expand the economy in the long run—immigrants that U.S. policy should have been targeting for decades.
Why Trump Should Not Surrender on DACA
All that said, Trump should not trade DACA for the RAISE Act—or for the other assorted goodies. Why not? It all boils down to political asymmetries.
There can be little doubt the president’s demands are more valuable than DACA on paper: DACA would grant residency to, at most, 3.5 million people, whereas the RAISE Act would cut immigration by 500,000 people per year. Therefore, it should not take long for the benefits of ongoing immigration reduction to outweigh the one-time costs associated with preserving DACA. Further, the RAISE Act would prevent a wave of chain migration in the wake of a DACA amnesty, setting aside another major concern.
However, this assumes the RAISE Act will last. It will not. Herein lies the political asymmetry.
The Democratic Party lost the war of ideas decades ago and now depends upon immigrant voters to survive. In fact, a report from the Center for Immigration Studies shows that immigrants vote Democrat by a ratio of at least 2:1, and that the gap is widening. This has major political consequences—especially since there are now more than 40 million legal immigrants in America. The last presidential election Democrats won without immigrant voters was that of Lyndon B. Johnson back in 1964 (excluding Ross Perot’s vote-splitting antics in 1992).
Democrats need immigration, and they know it. Should the RAISE Act pass, the Democrats would work night-and-day to repeal it and the odds are good that eventually they would succeed. After all, the RAISE Act is just an ordinary piece of legislation. Conversely, a DACA amnesty would not be reversible—given how bitterly divided America is over the deportation of illegal immigrants, the likelihood of successfully stripping residency or citizenship rights from amnesty-recipients is basically nil. Amnesty is permanent; immigration reform is not. The same goes for just about everything else on President Trump’s list—with the exception of the wall, perhaps.
There can be no deal on DACA, and no compromise on immigration reform until the Democrats stop playing identity politics, and begin putting Americans first. President Trump would be wise to acknowledge this.
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