Outlining his position on immigration in August of last year, Donald Trump, then the Republican candidate for U.S. president, made his motivating philosophy clear: “There is only one core issue in the immigration debate, and that issue is the well-being of the American people.” Although this nationalistic appeal may strike some readers as conservative, it is very similar to the position taken by U.S. civil rights icon and Democrat Barbara Jordan, who before her death in 1996 headed President Bill Clinton’s commission on immigration reform. “It is both a right and a responsibility of a democratic society,” she argued, “to manage immigration so that it serves the national interest.” Trump’s rhetoric has of course been overheated and insensitive at times, but his view on immigration—that it should be designed to benefit the receiving country—is widely held.
In the United States, there is strong evidence that the national interest has not been well served by the country’s immigration policy over the last five decades. Even as levels of immigration have approached historic highs, debate on the topic has been subdued, and policymakers and opinion leaders in both parties have tended to overstate the benefits and understate or ignore the costs of immigration. It would make a great deal of sense for the country to reform its immigration policies by more vigorously enforcing existing laws, and by moving away from the current system, which primarily admits immigrants based on family relationships, toward one based on the interests of Americans.
Trump did not create the strong dissatisfaction with immigration felt by his working-class supporters, but he certainly harnessed it. Voters’ sense that he would restrict immigration may be the single most important factor that helped him win the longtime Democratic stronghold of the industrial Midwest, and thus the presidency. There are two primary reasons why immigration has become so controversial, and why Trump’s message resonated. The first is lax enforcement and the subsequently large population living in the country illegally. But although illegal immigration grabs most of the headlines, a second factor makes many Americans uncomfortable with the current policy. It is the sheer number of immigrants, legal or otherwise. The United States currently grants one million immigrants lawful permanent residence (or a “green card”) each year, which means that they can stay as long as they wish and become citizens after five years, or three if they are married to a U.S. citizen. Roughly 700,000 long-term visitors, mostly guest workers and foreign students, come annually as well.
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