President Trump’s first legal immigration reform plan from August 2017 called for a 50 percent cut to the system. His second plan in January 2018 revised this to 38 percent. His third in June 2018 dropped the cuts to 10 percent. Now, his latest immigration plan drops all cuts. By this time next year, Trump could finally propose what the academic consensus says would create the most economic growth: a significant increase in legal immigration. The president’s flawed proposal is still a signal that the pro-immigrant side is winning.
The White House’s one-pager about the plan is, to put it charitably, light on the details, but from what we know now, we can say that it is a decidedly mixed bag. Its only positive feature is that it increases skilled immigration, though less than the reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013. But it more than offsets this increase by making it much more difficult to request asylum, capping the refugee program, banning U.S. citizens from sponsoring their siblings, parents, or adult children, and ending the diversity visa lottery. It also hints that it would impose the useless and error-prone E-Verify program on every American employer and employee.
The problem is that the president continues to view immigration as a zero-sum game in which one group of immigrants must suffer if another group benefits. U.S. employers can hire skilled workers without separating U.S. citizens from their immediate family members. The current level of immigration has no justification in morality or economics. Congress arbitrarily arrived at that number. The United States lags far behind other developed countries in net immigration. Indeed, it ranks in the bottom third for net immigration from 2015 to 2017 among countries with a per capita GDP above $20,000.
The biggest unknown is how the White House plan will address the 4 million people currently waiting for a green card in the family-sponsored immigration system—many of whom have already waited a decade or more. Prior proposals had canceled their applications and booted them from the lines. If that occurs under this plan, Congress should reject it on that basis alone. Not only is it incredibly unfair to abandon the promises that the United States has made to those people, but doing so would inevitably cause many to lose faith in the legal immigration system, adding to the rush at the border.
Table 1 provides a breakdown of the proposed legal immigration changes by category. These are estimates based on the statement that 57 percent of immigrants would be skills-based, 33 percent family-sponsored, and 10 percent humanitarian. The only way to reach these figures is by eliminating all family categories except spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and ending the diversity visa lottery. It also requires reducing the numbers of refugees from their 2017 peak of 120,356 to the new proposed permanent cap of 50,000 (which is actually higher than the president’s 2019 cap of 30,000). Then, if you reallocate all the green cards to the points system, you arrive at 57 percent being skilled or employer-sponsored.
But there are important caveats to this table. First, we know that the asylum program will be cut by new restrictions on border asylum claims. Second, we don’t know how restrictive the points system will be. The White House states that it will include people with “extraordinary talent,” “professional and specialized vocations,” and “exceptional students.” But those categories could be drawn very narrowly or very expansively. Third, the president implied that all future immigrants will be required to learn English before they even arrive. If that applies even to spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens, that would further cut legal immigration.
Comments on the details of the plan:
Cuts to the diversity and family programs: There is no economic justification for eliminating the diversity lottery program or the family-sponsored categories. President Trump equates these programs with “low-skilled” immigration, but this is untrue. Nearly half of all family-sponsored immigrants and diversity lottery winners have a college degree, meaning that they are far better educated than U.S.-born Americans. This is nearly the same level of education as the average Canadian immigrant.
Even if cuts to family and diversity immigrants resulted in fewer immigrants with less education, this is not a benefit to the U.S. economy, which still needs low-skilled workers. Nearly half of all job growth over this decade will come from jobs that don’t require a college degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and even in 2026, 73 percent of jobs will still not require a college degree. Low-skilled immigrants start with lower wages, but they see faster wage growth than employer-sponsored immigrants, leading their wages to converge with U.S.-born workers.
Moreover, the academic consensus is that for the majority of low-skilled U.S.-born workers, immigration increases their wages (even Harvard’s George Borjas agrees). How can this be? Well, U.S. workers respond to increases in low-skilled immigration by shifting to less manually intensive jobs.
Cuts to asylum and the refugee program: The White House wants to impose a cap on the refugee program of 50,000 and make it more difficult to file asylum claims at the border. Yet according to the Trump administration’s Health and Human Services, refugees and asylees from 2005 to 2014 paid $63 billion more in taxes than they received in benefits to all levels of government. Refugees and asylees had a more positive fiscal effect because 81 percent were in their prime working years compared to just 63 percent of the U.S. population overall. The existence of asylum at the border has significantly reduced the rate of deaths at the border by illegal crossers as well. Asylum seekers receive background checks and health screenings at the border, making them preferable to the previous waves of illegal crossers.
New points system: Increasing the number of green cards for skilled workers is unequivocally positive and the president should be commended for abandoning his former-bills that did not increase skilled immigration, even while slashing the other immigration programs. But the market should determine the qualifications for workers, not the federal government. If this points system is too restrictive (e.g. focusing only on Nobel prize winners, valedictorians, etc.), not all of the green cards will be used, and it could actually result in a cut to legal immigration.
Any points system should have as a baseline requirement having a job or job offer from a U.S. employer. Beyond that, prioritization within the system should focus primarily on workers with the highest wage offers because a high wage indicates high productivity. It is also appropriate to consider age insofar as younger workers have more time to contribute economically to the United States. Finally, some consideration should be given to workers with a proven track record for employment in the United States. Other factors—such as occupations, English language ability, educational attainment, good grades, or awards—are irrelevant and should not be included. Unfortunately, the president implies that the plan could include some of those factors, though the White House outline doesn’t lay out in detail how it will work.
Requiring English language proficiency and civics exam: Employers should determine the skills that are needed. As studies have repeatedly shown, Americans actually benefit from immigrants who speak less English because it allows Americans to specialize in jobs requiring language skills, creating complementarities in the labor market that make both groups more productive. The government should not add irrelevant criteria for employment in the United States like a civics exam. Employers should decide which workers to hire. A civics exam and an English test are already appropriately required to become a citizen, not merely to come to live and work. Moreover, requiring English language of spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens would be an affront to Americans’ freedom to marry who they choose and adopt children who may not speak the language.
E-Verify mandate: E-Verify is the government's attempt at a national identification system. The White House outline doesn't explicitly name E-Verify but rather states that the plan "will ensure that all employees are legally authorized to work." Many states already require employers to use it, and from those experiments, we know that E-Verify doesn't stop illegal employment and that hundreds of thousands of legal workers have had their jobs delayed or terminated due to errors in the system. A mandate to use it would be probably the largest regulation in scope in the history of the United States in that it would affect every single employee and employer in the country. This aspect of the plan is unequivocally negative, though the Senate has included it in each of its major overhaul efforts in 2006, 2007, and 2013.
In conclusion, this proposal does nothing to address other important immigration reforms, including the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, the “dreamer” population, or the inadequate lesser-skilled guest worker programs. While it leaves out a lot and makes some big mistakes, the president is giving up an important talking point with his latest plan: that there are just too many immigrants coming to this country. That’s a win for the pro-immigrant side.