On October 31, 2017 Sayfullo Saipov drove a truck through a crowded bike path in NYC, killing eight people and injuring eleven. A few weeks later, on December 11, 2017, Akayed Ullah detonated a bomb inside a NYC subway tunnel. The bomb did not seriously harm anyone, but that was thanks mostly to poor execution. In his recent State of the Union speech, Donald Trump took advantage of both of these tragic events to promote his vision for immigration reform. He singled out Saipov and Ullah because they had immigrated to the US on the kinds of visas he wants to do away with. Saipov immigrated to the US on a green card lottery visa, while Ullah immigrated on a family reunification visa. For Trump, these visas are what allow “bad dudes” from “shithole countries” to gain access to the US and take advantage of its generosity.
In order to accomplish his immigration objectives, the deal-maker-in-chief has proposed the following Faustian bargain to Democrats. In exchange for granting lawful status to DREAMers (i.e., undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children), he wants congress to approve $25 billion in more border security (specifically a “wall” along the US southern border with Mexico), an end to the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program (i.e., the green card lottery), and a shift away from prioritizing family reunification and towards recruiting “skilled” workers. There are many things that are wrong with this deal. For starters, it exploits the vulnerability of DREAMers, essentially holding them hostage to the whims of Trump. It has the potential to further exacerbate an already troubling global inequality in human capital (e.g., “brain drain” from the global south to the global north). It also would do little to actually stop illicit migration. Given the US economy’s need for “unskilled” labor, coupled with US citizens’ reluctance to perform such labor and a lack of visas for immigrants who would, there is no reason to think that demand for “undocumented” workers will magically decline. So long as there is demand, stricter immigration enforcement will do nothing except make the trek and the lives of these workers more expensive, dangerous, and uncertain.
These reasons alone should be enough for us to oppose Trump’s deal and demand that Congress give the DREAM Act a straight up or down vote. It’s also important, however, to expose the two misconceptions that make Trump’s immigration proposal so appealing to many, including some so-called moderates. The first is that an admissions policy favoring “skilled” workers is always better for a receiving country’s economy than a system favoring family reunification. The second is that immigrants pose a threat to public safety. The outright falsity of these two narratives need to be exposed in order to reveal the real motivations behind Trump’s immigration proposals.
The claim that admissions policies favoring “skilled” workers are economically better than policies favoring family reunification is true only if we narrow our focus to paid labor and exclude things such as unpaid care-giving. When we look at its overall economic impact, family reunification policies are a major boon for a country’s economy. Everyone at some point in their lives has needed care and likely will again. For immigrants, very often this care comes from family, particularly extended family. For example, non-citizen grandparents are often brought to care for their citizen grandchildren. This unpaid care work not only allows parents to be more economically productive, but also makes the family unit less dependent on social services. Consider also aging immigrant workers who, for many years, have been immensely productive in their host country but as they get older begin to need care themselves. This care is often provided by their non-citizen adult children or other adult non-citizen family members who immigrate on family reunification visas. In short, by internalizing most of the necessary, but too often underappreciated care work, immigrant families are an overall economic gain for receiving countries. So when Trump rails against “chain migration,” it is naïve to believe he is concerned about the economy.
But Trump has long made immigration about much more than the economy. He began his campaign by associating immigration with various kinds of security threats and has never relented. The aforementioned incidents involving Saipov and Ullah are just the most recent episodes of this fear-mongering. The truth is that on average immigrants commit far fewer crimes than citizens, and there is zero evidence that crime among immigrants, especially violent crime, is on the rise. It’s unlikely that these facts about immigration and crime have made it down to the consciousness of average Americans, but someone in Trump’s position ought to know better. This means that when he talks about Saipov and Ullah as though they were representative of the kinds of immigrants who come to this country, he is purposefully distorting reality and attempting only to raise fear and anxiety among the general public about immigrants.
The reality is that ever since the US began to restrict immigration (which was only since 1875), these restrictions have been aimed either at keeping non-white immigrants out or encouraging white immigrants to come. The priority given to family reunification and the green card lottery are no exception. The preference for family reunification was put in place only in 1965 and its original intent was to encourage Americans of eastern and southern European descent (who by that time had become fully “white” in the US society) to bring over their family. The same is true for the the green card lottery. This policy was originally designed in the late 1980’s to encourage more immigration from places like Ireland to help offset the increased immigration from non-white parts of the world. These policies, however, had consequences that their designers neither intended nor foresaw. Today, the primary beneficiaries of these visas are non-white immigrants who would otherwise have no lawful path to immigrate to the US. Currently, the primary beneficiaries of family reunification come from Mexico and the Dominican Republic, while the primary beneficiaries of the green card lottery come from countries in Africa. In this respect, Trump’s proposal offers us nothing new. It is the same old “keep America white” approach to immigration reform, yet again.