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Why Trump’s Legal Immigration Reforms Would Be Bad for Americans

Alex Nowrasteh

President Trump campaigned on creating a new U.S. immigration
policy that is in the national interest. Rising to Trump’s call,
two Republican Senators — Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David
Perdue of Georgia — have introduced the RAISE Act to slash
legal immigration by 50%.

It’s easy to claim that something is in the “national interest.”
It’s much harder to justify it. In the case of these immigration
restrictions, invoking the national interest just doesn’t make
sense.

In a White House press conference announcing the bill, President
Trump said that it “will reduce poverty, increase wages.” Cotton
later chimed in by arguing that “there is a direct correlation
between the mass unskilled, low skilled migration we have seen over
the last few decades and stagnant wages and standards of living for
working Americans.”

The U.S. immigration
system needs reform, but RAISE’s push to cut of legal immigration,
without any corresponding increase in skilled immigrants, worsens
the problem.

In reality, the RAISE Act would slow wage and economic growth
and would do nothing to create a merit-based immigration policy
favoring skilled immigrants.

We’ve already seen what happens to wages when similar bills are
enacted. Congress last cut legal migration in 1964 when it
cancelled the Bracero program for Mexican farm workers. Lawmakers
believed arguments made by the United Farm Workers union, led by
Cesar Chavez, that cancelling Bracero would raise wages for
low-skilled farm workers.

However, wage growth for American farm workers actually slowed
after Congress cancelled Bracero, because farmers mechanized
agriculture and grew less labor-intensive crops rather than pay
higher wages.

It’s odd that two GOP senators would now embrace an economic
argument made by labor unions and left-wing activists like Cesar
Chavez.

The immigrants the RAISE Act would exclude and the bill’s
details are eerily similar to those in the Bracero program. The
RAISE Act would cut green cards by about 500,000 annually — a
number close to the annual admissions under the Bracero program at
its peak. Furthermore, the Bracero workers were relatively lower
skilled, just like many of the family-based immigrants the RAISE
Act would exclude. Lastly, today’s immigrants and Bracero workers
were concentrated in just a handful of states.

Furthermore, immigration’s impact on wages is overstated. A
recent National Academy of Sciences study found that “the impact of
immigration on the wages of native-born workers overall is very
small.” Most of the effect is actually concentrated on other
immigrants who compete with new immigrant arrivals.

There is little empirical evidence to support the claim that
reducing immigration increases American wages. The most negative
empirical finding is that competition with immigrant workers from
1990 to 2010 reduced the wages of native high-school dropouts,
relative to other American workers, by 1.7%. But the average
relative wages for the 91% of American workers who are not dropouts
— including the middle class — actually rose because of
immigration during that time. Is slowing middle class wage growth
truly in the national interest?

Even critics of immigration acknowledge that it leads to
economic gains. Cotton conceded at a press conference this week
that lowering immigration would also diminish economic growth. The
NAS found immigration boosts growth, which is what drives wage
increases, productivity gains, and a higher standard of living. Is
slowing economic growth truly in the national interest?

Even more worrisome, despite talking points to the contrary, the
RAISE Act does not create a merit-based immigration system. The
bill does not increase the number of skilled immigrants; it only
cuts other categories and reforms some aspects of the
employment-based green card system for skilled workers. Is a cap in
the number of skilled immigrants truly in the national
interest?

The truth is that none of these things are in the national
interest. The U.S. immigration system needs reform, but RAISE’s
push to cut of legal immigration, without any corresponding
increase in skilled immigrants, worsens the problem.

This legislation should have taken the approximately 500,000
green cards it eliminates from other categories and instead put
those in the merit-based category.

At a minimum, the RAISE Act will diminish wage growth for over
90% of American workers and slow the economy overall – a far cry
from what’s best for the national interest.

Alex
Nowrasteh
is the immigration policy analyst at the Cato
Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.