Column: Serious Debate About Immigration Is Needed

My column published by the Valley News, Lebanon, New Hampshire, August 20, 2016

On Monday August 15, Donald Trump presented a version of his views about foreigners coming to the United States. He disrupts what popular debate over immigration exists by building an immigration policy exclusively on what to many is a secondary issue — the risk of terrorist acts carried out by foreigners.

But his disruption may turn out to be beneficial, if Congress addresses immigration reform in 2017. It’s beneficial as there has not been a real debate about immigration worthy of the term debate for a very long time, maybe not in the lifetime of today’s retirees. By smashing up the current fake debate, he may induce politicians to talk more thoughtfully.

In a “nation of immigrants,” politicians have been unable to articulate in a public forum a succinct rationale for immigration, and a vision that provides a context for immigration policy. Laws on immigration are, after the tax code, the longest segment in the entire body of federal laws, yet a concise statement of national purpose is hard to find. For the most part, public discussion about immigration begins with picking apart one aspect of the issue and ends there. This includes the topics of illegal immigration, economic gains or losses from immigration, and the imagined infiltration of Sharia law advocates.

The United States has made a huge bet that immigrants — a lot of them — will benefit the country.

Since Congress passed in 1965 a permissive reform to the very restrictive and overtly racist 1924 act, the foreign-born population has soared, especially since about 1980. The foreign-born share of residents has doubled to about 13 percent today. Foreigners are much more likely today to live outside the historical aggregations of immigrants, such as New York and Chicago.

Demographically, they can be said to be driving the bus. They are younger on average. Relatively few new foreign-born entrants (5 percent) are over the age of 65. They are more likely to work, hence 16 percent of the workforce is foreign-born. Those with higher education degrees (about 28 percent) on average earn more than native-born college graduates. They have a higher fertility rate. Hence, 30 percent of children in America (under the age of 18) are either foreign-born or the children of foreign-born — that is, second-generation.

While native-born Americans are experiencing what some call a “demographic winter,” the foreign-born and their offspring are incrementally more and more of the productive force in the country. The highly respected Pew Research Center forecasts that 93 percent of the growth of the nation’s working-age population between now and 2050 will be accounted for by immigrants and their U.S.-born children.

The last time Washington talked coherently about immigration was probably during the 1990s, when the Commission on Immigration Reform (known as the Jordan Commission, for its chairwoman, Barbara Jordan, a former Democratic congresswoman from Texas) issued a series of reports drawing upon its research and made a concerted and largely successful attempt by commission members to speak with one voice.

The commission examined and made recommendations on virtually every aspect of the immigration system: family reunification, employment-based immigration, enforcement measures to stem unauthorized immigration, and numerical limits on all classes of immigrants, non-immigrants, and asylees.

Between 1994 and 1997, it issued four reports. In the last report, “Becoming An American: Immigration and Immigrant Policy,” the commission defined a vision in 90 words:

“Properly-regulated immigration and immigrant policy serves the national interest by ensuring the entry of those who will contribute most to our society and helping lawful newcomers adjust to life in the United States. It must give due consideration to shifting economic realities. A well-regulated system sets priorities for admission; facilitates nuclear family reunification; gives employers access to a global labor market while protecting U.S. workers; helps to generate jobs and economic growth; and fulfills our commitment to resettle refugees as one of several elements of humanitarian protection of the persecuted.”

The commission recommended that permanent residency (“green card”) numbers go down by about a third from the prevailing annual level of about 600,000 then. Today, about one million green cards are issued annually.

Having followed immigration issues for many years, I’ve seen how some issues, such as competition for jobs between immigrant and native-born workers, are discussed out of the context of other issues. I’ve seen how rarely people think of immigration as a long, multigenerational process, and demand quick results.

And, as a person inclined on the whole toward a permissive approach, I have seen how my own thinking improves when I listen to or read a thoughtful argument for a restrictive approach. I hope that Trump’s riotous proposals drive politicians to think and talk more coherently about this vital aspect of American life

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