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The Greatness Agenda

Trump’s Blind Spot on Immigration

A more moderate level of immigration is both good policy and good politics. Cheap foreign labor is cheap foreign labor, whether it’s legal or illegal, permanent or temporary, blue-collar or white-collar. 


- January 18th, 2020
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President Trump’s recent interview with Laura Ingraham highlighted an aspect of his views on immigration that doesn’t get enough attention: He wants to increase immigration.

High-skilled or low-skilled, temporary or permanent, the president’s desire has been consistent: “We need people!” Apparently, 1.1 million new permanent immigrants a year—plus hundreds of thousands of “temporary” workers—just isn’t enough.

There’s no doubt that the president is committed to better enforcement of immigration laws, and his administration has made some modest progress in that regard, in the face of savage, Battle-of-Stalingrad opposition.

But when it comes to legal immigration, Trump’s approach is little different from that of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Chuck Schumer and John McCain, Mike Bloomberg and Mark Zuckerberg.

Ingraham is a fan of the president, so the half-hour interview, ranging across a variety of topics, was generally friendly. But Ingraham is also no sycophant, so when she brought up the issue of foreign workers, she didn’t pull her punch.

“We don’t have a tight labor market,” she said (about halfway through the linked clip). “If we had a tight labor market, we’d be seeing real increases in wages. I hear that your team is planning on advocating more foreign workers coming in for some of these high-tech companies. I’m very concerned about that, as are a lot of your supporters.“

This objection wasn’t news to the president—he’s been calling for increased immigration for at least a year, and he told Ingraham that he’d heard the same concerns from Mark Levin and Lou Dobbs, as well.

But the president responded with two arguments, one focused on less-skilled workers, the other about skilled workers specifically. Both arguments contradicted the spirit of his Buy American/Hire American executive order and his broader message of solidarity with American workers.

The president’s first attempt at justifying his support for increased immigration was premised on foreign companies opening more plants here:

I call [Japan’s] Prime Minister Abe, he’s a friend of mine—I say ‘Shinzo, you gotta open up more plants in the United States.’ They tell me, ‘We want to do it, we want to do it,’ they start opening—they can’t get labor.

So what the president is saying is that we want foreign companies to create jobs in the United States—which we’ll fill by importing foreign workers!

The broader point here is that the president thinks the labor market is too tight, and that government policy should loosen it. In a loose labor market, workers have to hustle to find employment. In a tight labor market, employers have to hustle to find workers. Many people were under the impression that candidate Trump sided with workers in this scenario. They were incorrect.

Behind the Unemployment Rate

The low unemployment rate is not a sign that there’s a labor shortage—if “labor shortage” is even a meaningful concept in a market economy. A low rate is better than a high rate, certainly, but people are counted as officially “unemployed” only if they’ve actively looked for work in the previous four weeks.

But what about those who’ve given up and dropped out of the job market altogether? It turns out that the “labor force participation rate”—the share of all adults who are either working or looking for work—has still not returned to pre-recession levels. It’s just that those people who’ve dropped out of the job market are no longer counted as “unemployed.” That means there are millions of American workers not currently in the job market who are available for Shinzo’s factories and those of other employers.

The hot economy actually is starting to make a dent in this. Not only are workers—especially the less-skilled—seeing improvements in their wages and benefits, but employers are having to hustle to pull in people from the margins of the job market, like ex-cons, recovering addicts, the disabled, et al. Businessmen aren’t necessarily wrong when they complain that many of the Americans who aren’t already employed—especially in today’s hot job market—are hard to employ. But people don’t exist to serve the economy—it’s the other way around. And no government social program can ever be as effective in helping people get back on their feet as a tight labor market.

A Gift to Cheap-Labor Employers

One way the administration is trying to loosen the labor market for the benefit of employers is through an expansion of the H-2B visa, which is for non-agricultural seasonal jobs.

During the Republican debates, candidate Trump defended his own extensive use of this work-visa program at his various properties, saying they were jobs Americans won’t do: “People don’t want a short-term job.” That would come as a surprise to the hundreds of Americans who apply for jobs filled by H-2B workers—not just in the hospitality industry, but also landscaping, retail, forestry, and other fields.

If the problem were a shortage of skilled labor, why is one of the chief uses of the H-1B visa the replacement of existing American workers with cheaper foreigners on work visas?

For the past several years, Congress—pressed by lobbyists to increase the number of H-2B visas—has passed the buck to the Department of Homeland Security, authorizing it to increase the number of visas if it chooses to do so. The first time this happened, in 2017, DHS increased the cap less than the maximum Congress had authorized, and described it as a “one-time increase” only for those who “attest, under penalty of perjury, that their business is likely to suffer irreparable harm if it cannot employ H-2B nonimmigrant workers.” At the behest of employer lobbyists, DHS raised the cap again in 2018 and 2019.

Trying to head off another such gift to cheap-labor employers this year, a bipartisan group of five senators sent a letter to DHS this week opposing an increase without a significant tightening of the program. The two Republican signatories are no surprise; Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) have long fought for an immigration policy that puts American workers first. But when Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) are more hawkish about restricting immigration than Donald Trump, the president needs to take a hard look in the mirror.

A Nonexistent Skilled Labor Shortage

But what about higher-skilled workers? Ingraham’s question, after all, was about “more foreign workers coming in for some of these high-tech companies,” alluding to programs like the H-1B visa, the Optional Practical Training program, and other gimmicks used to import low-wage tech labor.

The president said he’s for more of them, too; “We have to allow smart people to stay in our country,” he said. When Ingraham asked why American college graduates shouldn’t be getting those jobs, Trump responded, “We don’t have enough of them.”

That’s absurd. Half of Americans with degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields aren’t working in those fields. And if the problem were a shortage of skilled labor, why is one of the chief uses of the H-1B visa the replacement of existing American workers with cheaper foreigners on work visas?

The president actually ran against the use of H-1Bs to replace Americans and featured workers laid off by Disney at his rallies. But for all the fulminating by politicians of both parties about this, Disney (and many, many other companies) did nothing illegal; the H-1B law is designed to replace Americans, and continues to be used that way, most recently by AT&T. Despite some tightening of the program’s oversight, the administration hasn’t done anything meaningful to address the concerns of displaced American tech workers.

Don’t expect the former Disney workers to campaign for Trump this time around.

In his comments to Ingraham, the president also alluded to letting foreign students stay when their studies were completed: he wants you to be able to stay if “you graduate number one in your class at Harvard.” Fine, but how many people like that are there? Our current skills-based immigration rules allow 140,000 people a year to get permanent green cards—are there 140,000 Ivy League valedictorians a year? The small number of true geniuses in the world can already come here, and we’re better off for it—but, as Bill Clinton might have said, it depends on the meaning of the word “genius.”

Even the current level of skill-based immigration, whether permanent or temporary, admits lots of people who aren’t Einsteins; the majority of H-1B visa holders, for instance, are in the bottom half of the Labor Department’s skill categories. Increasing skills-based immigration, as the still-unreleased White House proposal Ingraham referenced would do, would simply be another gift to the very tech employers who hate this administration while undermining the president’s own supporters.

President Trump needs to be made to understand that America needs a more moderate level of immigration because it’s both good policy and good politics. Cheap foreign labor is cheap foreign labor, whether it’s legal or illegal, permanent or temporary, blue-collar or white-collar.

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