When I criticize Donald Trump’s immigration policy proposals, the most common response is some variant of “Trump is against ILLEGAL immigration, not LEGAL immigration. Get your facts straight.” Although Trump makes contradictory statements on many topics, allowing virtually any supporter to find a quote in support of his or her preferred policy position, Trump has been mostly consistent on legal immigration: He wants to cut it.
Here are Trump’s anti-legal immigration positions, in bold, pulled from his position paper:
1. Immigration moderation. Trump calls for a “pause” on the issuance of any new green cards to workers abroad so that “employers will have to hire from the domestic pool of unemployed immigrant and native workers.” Trump’s position paper is unclear on this point because immigrants on employment-based green cards are not the only green card holders who work in the United States – a majority of green card holders who enter through family categories work too. In 2014, 61 percent of family-based immigrants came from abroad. If Trump wanted to be sure that none of them would work in the United States then he would support cutting those 61 percent of family-based green cards, which are equal to 38.7 percent of all green cards issued in 2014.
Trump’s policy statement could also mean that he only wants to restrict the issuance of employment-based green cards, a smaller numerical restriction but one that would cause more economic damage. Of the 151,596 employment-based green cards issued in 2014, 86 percent went to folks already in the U.S. legally on other visas. Those 14 percent of green cards that Trump would deny to workers abroad would likely just be reallocated to migrant workers already in the United States. However, Trump’s proposed changes to the H-1B visa program (explained below) would greatly damage or destroy the feeder system that sends migrants to the employment-based green card.
Thus, if Trump’s policy is adopted then the employment-based green cards may not decrease in number for a few years as those already on H-1Bs adjust their status. After those years pass and as the number of H-1Bs fall and aren’t replaced by new ones because of the onerous restrictions, the number of new employment-based green cards will steadily drop and could hit zero. If that happens then the total number of all green cards issued annually will drop by 14.9 percent.
If employment-based green cards from abroad are cut off and those slots remain unfilled then this reform might only cut the number of all green cards by 2.2 percent. If Trump’s plans produce the worst case scenario and exclude most family-based green cards and result in the end of the employment-based green card program, then it could end up cutting the number of all green cards issued annually by 53.7 percent – depending on how long he continues this policy. Verdict: Anti-legal immigration.
2. Increase prevailing wage for H-1Bs. This policy proposal will reduce the number of legal skilled temporary migrant workers. Just over 124,000 H-1Bs were approved in 2014 for initial employment in the United States, 85,000 of them for employment in firms and the rest in non-profit research institutions, with an average salary of $75,000. If the minimum salary for H-1B visas was bumped up to $100,000 then the number of H-1Bs hired by private firms would decrease while they’d also shrink for research institutions – if this new wage regulation would apply to them.
For initial H-1B employment, the 75th percentile for compensation is $81,000. Even including all of the petitions for high wage workers that are rejected each year, this reform would significantly shrink the number of H-1B visas issued at an enormous economic cost. Combined with additional rules and regulations, this reform would reduce the H-1B program to a shadow of itself. Verdict: Anti-legal immigration.
3. Requirement to hire American workers first. This policy would increase the regulatory cost for American firms hiring skilled foreign workers in specialty occupations. Congress considered just such a policy for the H-1B visa in 1990 and rejected it because the regulatory costs would be so high. Higher regulatory costs mean fewer migrants. Verdict: Anti-legal immigration.
4. Refugee program for American children. This policy would raise the standards for refugees and asylum seekers in order, according to Trump’s position paper, to cut down on abuse and fraud. However, higher standards won’t reduce actual oppression by foreign governments so this proposal will likely just result in more fraud and many people who meet the criteria being sent back to oppressive regimes.
Assuming the worst case scenario, Trump’s policy proposal would decrease humanitarian immigration by 70 percent according to the exaggerated fraud statistics peddled by nativist organizations. That policy, if in place in 2014, would have cut humanitarian immigration by about 94,000 under the worst case scenario. This section of Trump’s paper assumes that there will be fewer asylees and refugees, so he is definitely anticipating a cut in the legal numbers but it’s unclear to what extent. Verdict: Anti-legal immigration.
Assuming that all sections of Trump’s immigration position paper become law, the combined worst case scenarios from each of these sections of Trump’s position paper – the end of the employment-based green card program, the halting of new arrivals under the family-based immigration green card system, and a 70 percent reduction in humanitarian visas – would reduce the annual number of green cards issued by 62.9 percent or about 640,000.
In the best case scenario whereby the “fraudulent” asylees and refugees are entirely replaced by legitimate ones and Trump doesn’t restrict family based immigrants who are also workers, the employment-based green card program would shrink to a fraction of itself and potentially end entirely. This would decrease the total number of annual green cards issued by between 2 percent and 14 percent.
To be clear, all of these immigration programs have problems and need reform. Cato scholars have written about the problems with H-1B visas, refugees, and green cards in the past. But the way to fix those systems is not to pile on more regulations on firms, restrictions on workers, prohibitions on immigrants, and higher costs for everybody. The solution is to deregulate visas to lower costs for everybody involved, allow immigrants to switch jobs without gaining government permission and without legal consequences, and expand the number of green cards and other visas. Refugee access to means-tested welfare should be curtailed and Americans should be able to sponsor them if they choose. Trump’s proposals here do the opposite as he confirmed during his convention speech – and this doesn’t even touch on his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants.
If a liberal Democrat proposed policies that would restrict legal gun ownership by up to 62.9 percent, conservatives and Republicans would rightly label that Democrat as anti-gun. It is fair and reasonable to label somebody who proposes policies that could restrict immigration by up to 62.9 percent as anti-immigration or anti-legal immigration. Those labels are thus appropriate to describe Donald Trump based on his policy proposals.