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Critics blast Trump call for limits on legal immigration

6 Sep

By Lomi Kriel

September 5, 2016

Donald Trump’s hard-line stance on immigrants in the U.S. illegally is not surprising given that he made it the central part of his campaign. What has stunned experts in the fallout after his first detailed policy speech in Arizona last week is his nearly unprecedented public embrace of limiting legal immigration.

The country has an obligation to “control future immigration,” he said, to “ensure assimilation” and “keep immigration levels measured by population share within historical norms.”

“We will reform legal immigration to serve the best interests of America and its workers, the forgotten people,” Trump said.

It was a coup for those who support reducing immigration, led by Alabama’s Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions and advocated by a small group of national activists, such as NumbersUSA. Roy Beck, its executive director, said he has “been looking for decades for a candidate with such a pro-American worker attitude.”

Others called it a significant shift in U.S. policy with dark implications for a nation built on immigrants.

“What he’s talking about is a closing of the door, period,” said David Leopold, an Ohio immigration lawyer and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “This is the time-out the restrictionists have long dreamed about.”

It is a sharp break from the mainstream Republican Party’s long-held support for legal immigration while opposing amnesty for those in the country illegally. Many business groups favoring the GOP advocate an overhaul of the system to allow for more legal immigration.

“This is a huge change in policy,” said Jacob Monty, a Houston immigration lawyer who served on Trump’s Hispanic advisory group until he resigned after Trump’s Arizona speech. “This is not on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce website. This is not a serious proposal. It’s a way to redefine America and make it look like something resembling the 1950s.”

In his Phoenix speech, Trump noted that the United States admitted 59 million immigrants between 1965 and 2015.

“Many of these arrivals have greatly enriched our country,” he said. “But we now have an obligation to them and to their children to control future immigration as we are following, if you think, previous immigration waves.”

The U.S. Census estimates that whites will be a minority in about 30 years and the share of foreign-born people – 13 percent of the population – is at its highest level since 1920.

In 1924, Congress passed a law restricting the number of immigrants admitted from certain countries, initially limiting it to 2 percent of the number of persons from that country who lived in the United States in 1890. As a result, overall immigration dropped by almost half within a year.

Aimed at limiting immigration from southern and eastern Europe to “preserve the ideal of American homogeneity,” according to the State Department’s Office of the Historian, the law stayed in place until 1965.

Back to the 1950s

Trump last week appeared to suggest returning to such policies to keep immigration at “historic norms.” Advocates of such an idea generally reference the 1950s, when the foreign-born share of the population fell to about one out of every 20 people rather than today’s one in eight.

“This would be both an economic disaster and would be forever changing the nature of who we are as a country and shutting ourself off to the world,” said Todd Schulte, executive director of, an immigrant advocacy group founded by Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.

Sessions and the activist groups supporting such policies argue it would improve wages and employment opportunities for American workers.

“(Trump) put so much emphasis on why he would enforce and reduce legal immigration and that is to help the American worker,” said Beck, of NumbersUSA. “No candidate since 1960 has ever had anything like this kind of pro-worker policy.”

He noted that former Houston congresswoman Barbara Jordan, a prominent black liberal Democrat, chaired a 1995 commission calling for limiting immigration to protect U.S. workers. Former colleagues say Beck is taking Jordan’s comments out of context, arguing they occurred during different political circumstances.

About half of the American public opposes increasing legal immigration while just more than a third favors it, according to a poll last week by Morning Consult, a Washington, D.C. research company. It was conducted Sept. 1-2 among a national sample of 2,001 registered voters, with a margin of error of plus- or minus-two percentage points.

‘Essentially zero’ impact

Economists, however, tend to agree that immigration does not depress wages over the long term and actually boosts productivity. There is some debate over its short-term effect, particularly on low-skilled workers.

A 2014 study by Giovanni Peri, an economics professor at the University of California, Davis, found that immigration has a small impact, “essentially zero,” on the average wages of native workers, who he said are insulated by differences in skills from immigrant workers.

In his speech, Trump did not detail how he would limit legal immigration, but said he would create a commission to study the issue and develop a set of reforms. Immigrants should be selected based on their “likelihood of success” and ability to be “financially self-sufficient.” He advocated an “ideological certification” to ensure immigrants “share our values and love our people.”

Charles Foster, a Houston attorney who has advised Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama on immigration policy, questioned how such a policy would be defined or enforced.

“I’m a Methodist, but if I had to prove I’m a Methodist, I don’t know what I would show,” he said. “It’s just almost impossible to enact.”

Current U.S. immigration policy emphasizes family reunification with fewer visas issued based on a person’s ability to contribute to the economy. Trump’s proposal would flip that.

Beck said he also would urge Trump to cut an annual green card lottery that issues 50,000 visas to people around the world and stop allowing adult relatives to join their families here, which he said amounts to about 400,000 immigrants a year.

On his website, Trump has called for a “pause” in issuing green cards to foreign workers abroad, saying companies would have to hire domestically instead.

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, generally advocates for expanding legal immigration and has said she supports postponing the deportations for many of those in the country illegally.

The 2013 immigration bill that passed the Senate but died in the House would have increased legal immigration by as much as 50 percent, expanding the number of visas for high-tech workers, among others, while keeping most family unification visas.

Needs of an aging society

Rethinking the immigration system to more effectively align with future U.S. economic needs is not a novel concept, said Doris Meissner, commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service between 1993 and 2000. It could, however, mean more immigration, not less.

“We are, for the first time ever, an aging society,” she said. “As more people retire and less younger workers in the labor force are native-born, immigration gives us a way and can be a real competitive advantage to cushion the effects of that.”

The median age of the U.S.’s white native-born population is 43, compared to 29 for Hispanics, said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

“We have immigration over the last 30 years to thank for the fact that we do have a growing labor force,” he said. “If that stops, we would still continue to have some growth because of the past immigrants and their children, but over the longer haul we would look more like European countries, like Japan.”