President Donald Trump wants a significant reduction in legal immigration. That’s the most contentious condition he has laid down for providing an amnesty to 1.8 million illegal immigrants who came here as minors. He is not likely to get what he wants. But he is nonetheless enjoying great success in changing the immigration debate.
The best argument for an immigration slowdown is that immigrants would probably assimilate faster if there were fewer of them, and particularly if there were fewer low-skilled ones. The best argument for coupling a change to legal immigration and an amnesty is that the amnesty would otherwise raise legal immigration: Those 1.8 million newly legal immigrants would begin to sponsor relatives.
But you could limit their sponsorship rights as part of a deal without undertaking the more sweeping changes to legal immigration that Trump wants. There’s no compelling reason to include those changes in a deal. Moreover, political conditions for them are not ripe. Only a handful of senators and, according to polls, around a third of Americans want to reduce immigration. Trump himself barely campaigned on cuts to legal immigration in 2016. Even in his lengthy discussion of immigration in his State of the Union address, he didn’t explicitly note that his proposal would lead to reduced numbers.
Trump isn’t just asking for major change that most people don’t want; he’s asking for it on a short timetable. Many of the illegal immigrants who came here as minors received temporary protections against deportation from the Barack Obama administration. Trump wants those protections to end soon – he is revoking them because they were never legislated – and wants Congress to enact new statutory protections for them alongside his reforms to legal immigration.
All in all, he seems much more likely to get no deal than to get one that cuts legal immigration. Yet focusing on this fact risks obscuring Trump’s triumph in pulling the debate in a restrictionist direction.
Just five years ago, 68 of 100 senators voted for an immigration bill that would have expanded immigration – expanded it, according to the Congressional Budget Office, by 10.4 million people over a decade. That would have represented roughly a doubling of immigration.
Only a quarter of Americans want higher immigration, and presumably even fewer would want much higher. Yet that feature of the bill was hardly debated at the time. Jeff Sessions, then on the Senate Judiciary Committee, offered an amendment to cap immigration at 33 million over the decade. No other senator on the committee voted for it. After Sessions made his barely-noticed stand, public discussion of the bill focused on its amnesty for illegal immigrants and ignored its impact on legal immigration.
Five years ago, we had an essentially undebated bipartisan consensus for much higher legal immigration amid public inattention to the issue. Now increases in legal immigration aren’t on the table, and reductions are. Win or lose, Trump has moved the argument over immigration in a sharply restrictionist direction.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.