Peter Morici: Trump’s immigration proposals would foster a more prosperous, less-divided America

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close The president is telling lawmakers to fund and build his border wall or else any deal protecting Dreamers is dead; Kristin Fisher reports for 'Special Report.'

Trump demands a complete overhaul of US immigration policy

The president is telling lawmakers to fund and build his border wall or else any deal protecting Dreamers is dead; Kristin Fisher reports for 'Special Report.'

Editor's note: The following column originally appeared in The Baltimore Sun.

President Donald Trump has presented his first offer on immigration reform — an exhaustive list of measures to better seal our terribly porous borders, establish internal security and reassert federal authority over renegade sanctuary cities.

It includes conservative wish list items like a wall along the Mexican border that’s too expensive and whose objectives could be better accomplished, for example, through more resources for electronic surveillance. However, the Democrats often behave as if they prefer a border with the holes of a colander to win cheap electoral advantage.

Seen as a first offer to very difficult negotiating partners, Mr. Trump’s principles are best evaluated in terms of what is likely, because the Dreamers are hostage to this process, and what is needed, because the present system of granting even permanent legal visas is broken.

By endorsing the kinds of reforms proposed by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, President Trump is offering Congress an opportunity to better consider how new arrivals can contribute to national prosperity.

The United States has about 45 million immigrants and annually welcomes 1.5 million.

About one quarter are here illegally, and in recent years, their number has hardly changed. Declining birth rates abroad and tougher border enforcement have already slowed the inflow.

Canada and Australia face challenges similar to ours — falling birth rates, skill shortages and societies defined by waves of immigrants from Europe and Asia — and both place priority on the needs of their economies.

In contrast to other industrialized countries, the United States places greater emphasis on family reunification. Green Cards are granted automatically to spouses, minor children and parents of U.S. citizens. Subject to annual limits, entry is granted to other relatives of citizens, legal immigrants and refugees, and those who can contribute to economic growth.

Ultimately, about 65 percent of immigrant visas are based on family ties and 15 percent on employment. The remainder is mostly through a lottery for underrepresented countries.

The Cotton-Perdue bill would limit family reunification visas to minor children and spouses, end the lottery and focus on workforce needs.

Potential economic growth is determined by the sum of productivity and labor force growth. Both have fallen, causing many economists to conclude 2 percent growth is inevitable. However, missing from this is a discussion of labor force quality.

Innovations in robotics, artificial intelligence and other areas indicate broad opportunities to boost productivity, but American businesses face shortages of skilled technicians and engineers to fully exploit those.

Currently, immigrant workers tend to be concentrated among two groups: those with less than a high school education and those with more than a four-year college degree.

Immigrants tend to be older than the native population and more than half qualify for means-tested entitlements, creating obvious frictions.

Downward pressure on wages of lower skilled workers is measurable, but overall the impact of immigration on growth is positive. Technology-intensive activities are greatly enhanced by the influx of high-skilled immigrants, and those benefits overwhelm the costs imposed by lower wages on unskilled workers.

Immigration stresses social cohesion, especially among the working class. New arrivals compete for jobs and often eat different foods, practice different religions and have different family and community traditions.

Folks in small towns and rural counties, riveted by the loss of factories and consolidation in agriculture, increasingly rely on those very things to cope. And they feel alienated by the ethnic diversity and libertine values of larger cities. Those are important reasons why they don’t leave for educational and employment opportunities in diverse urban settings and have abandoned the Democratic Party.

Liberals in big cities — especially in the media and universities who shape public perceptions — dismiss middle-American ambivalence as ill-informed, xenophobic and racist.

After all, the urban elite work harmoniously in Manhattan office buildings, California technology centers and the like where cultural affinities that bring together professional groups tend to overwhelm ethnic differences among highly educated adults — if nothing else, professional schools like mine socialize students to common metropolis values and behavior.

What works for Ivy League and elite state university graduates does not rhyme well for ordinary working folks in America’s interior.

That’s why those common people elected Donald Trump to the dismay of urban intellectuals. As Barrack Obama so often lectured during his first years, elections should have consequences, and now the will of the common folks should be served.

Peter Morici served as Chief Economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission from 1993 to 1995. He is an economist and professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland.

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