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Linda Chavez: President weak on immigration economics

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Linda Chavez, Syndicated Columnist

President Donald Trump's decision to end the Barack Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for immigrants who came illegally as young children surprised many people, but it shouldn't have.

Linda Chavez
Linda Chavez

No group of undocumented immigrants is more sympathetic than DACA recipients, half of whom came to the United States with their parents when they were 6 years old or younger. But Trump's assurances that he has a "great heart" and "great love" for them is belied by his history of using immigration as a wedge issue to motivate his base.

The DACA ball is now in Congress's court. Over the years, various bills that have included provisions granting DACA recipients legal status have passed in one house in Congress but died in the other. The same will happen this time if GOP leaders insist on passing a bill with only Republican support.

Anyone who thought Trump's only concern was stopping illegal immigration wasn't paying close attention. Trump's ugly campaign rhetoric may have focused on illegal immigration -- building walls, protecting Americans' jobs and stopping a largely imagined crime wave -- but behind the scenes, candidate Trump was working closely with hard-liners who have long lobbied for cutting legal immigration drastically.

In a mostly ignored 2015 campaign policy paper titled "Immigration Reform That Will Make America Great Again," Trump promised, "Before any new green cards are issued to foreign workers abroad, there will be a pause where employers will have to hire from the domestic pool of unemployed immigrant and native workers."

He also proposed making it more difficult for employers to hire highly skilled foreign-born workers on H-1B visas, reining in funding for refugee programs and ending the J-1 exchange program that brings in foreign workers. It should come as no surprise then that on Aug. 2 the White House threw its weight behind the most sweeping restriction on legal immigration proposed in nearly a hundred years.

The Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act, which was introduced by Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga., with the support of the Trump administration, would almost immediately cut 41 percent of legal immigration to the United States, halve it within 10 years, implement a point system that favors skilled workers and English speakers, largely eliminate family sponsorship except for spouses and children under 18 and dramatically change the demographic profile of new immigrants.

The bill is a throwback to an earlier era, when the 1917 and 1924 immigration acts, for the first time in the country's history, imposed broad restrictions on immigration to the United States.

The RAISE Act is missing the inflammatory language of those earlier laws, but its intent appears similar -- to keep immigrants out. The 1917 law barred "all idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, epileptics, [and] insane persons" and virtually all immigrants from what was called the "Asiatic Barred Zone." The 1924 act restricted immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, then the largest source of immigration, because immigrants from those countries were presumed unassimilable.

Of course, those fears proved unfounded as immigrants, many of them illiterate, eventually learned English and climbed the socio-economic ladder, achieving parity with other Americans within a couple of generations. Current data suggests that the same is true for newer immigrants as well.

The children of immigrants now have higher college graduation rates than the overall population: 36 percent compared with 31 percent, respectively. Fear that today's immigrants won't assimilate as quickly as previous generations may be driving the RAISE Act, but that fear is overblown at best-and at worst motivated by prejudice toward immigrants from Latin America and Asia.

According to analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, the RAISE Act would have an immediate effect on immigration from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, China, India and Vietnam -- the countries that most rely on family-based visas -- because although some immigrants from these countries might qualify under the new, skills-based system, most would not, and there would be fewer visas to go around.

Although supporters of the RAISE Act claim it will improve the quality of immigrants admitted to the country by taking only those who are highly skilled, the loss of lower-skilled immigrants under the proposed bill is a major problem.

The assumption of the bill's authors and the Trump administration is that unemployed Americans, or those who have dropped out of the labor force altogether, will step in to take jobs currently held by lower-skilled immigrants living in the country legally or illegally. But there is little evidence that this would happen.

Will Americans who can now draw unemployment, welfare or disability benefits suddenly rush to take jobs picking crops, milking cows, scrubbing toilets, processing poultry or replacing roofs, even if the pay is somewhat higher than what immigrant workers in those jobs currently receive?

One of the reasons immigrants, here legally or illegally, fill so many of these jobs is that their skill sets match them.

LINDA CHAVEZ is the author of "An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal." Her column is distributed by Creators Syndicate Inc.