On immigration, Trump has come up with an idea even worse than the wall

It looked at first like the price of protecting young people who were brought to this country illegally as children was going to be funding for President Donald Trump’s wasteful, ineffective, symbolically toxic and (in his own chief of staff’s words) “uninformed” wall on the border with Mexico. But it turns out the immigration deal Mr. Trump outlined last week and is set to formally unveil today is actually much worse. The wall is in there, sure, and so is a path to citizenship not just for the 700,000 or so people who participated in the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program but also for more than a million others who would have been eligible but did not apply. But the heart of the deal has nothing to do with illegal immigration. The president now wants policies that would all but shut down the legal immigration system and crater our economy for generations to come.

Mr. Trump says he wants a “merit based” immigration system, and few would argue with the idea that people with marketable skills should get a leg up in the process of coming to America. But what he means is that he wants to shut down two pathways by which people immigrate legally — the diversity lottery and what immigration opponents have dubbed “chain migration.” The diversity lottery is a small program by which people from nations that have not historically been major sources for U.S. immigrants get the chance to apply to come here. We believe it has value in spreading the promise of the American dream throughout the globe, even if that does mean it helps people from countries the president recently dismissed with a term that was simultaneously vulgar and racist. But drastically curtailing the longstanding practice of allowing U.S. citizens and some legal residents to sponsor relatives to immigrate here is a very big deal.

Immigration opponents have come up with some absurd scenarios about how many additional people can be admitted to the United States via connections with one immigrant under “chain migration,” and the Trump administration argues the policy is a national security risk. Both claims fail to take into account the actual facts. The number of visas available through family migration is far lower than the demand, so the United States maintains a huge backlog of people trying to come here that way. Depending on what country you come from, you may have to wait anywhere from one to two decades for your application to be processed. And even then, there’s no guarantee you’ll get in. The United States screens prospective immigrants on these kinds of visas for criminal records, terrorist ties and their ability to support themselves in the U.S.

What’s inescapable about the sudden anxiety about reducing legal immigration is that the two policies the Trump administration and its hard-line supporters are targeting are now responsible for bringing in large numbers of non-white people to the United States — not the Norwegians the president wants.

(Incidentally, immigrants make up a larger percentage of Norway’s population than they do of America’s, and about 91 percent of net migration to the country in 2016 came from outside of Europe, the lion’s share of it from Syria, Africa and Afghanistan.)

The Trump plan would shut off family-based migration for all but spouses and minor children. For the “Dreamers” who would get a path to citizenship over a dozen years under the president’s bill, that means the price of legal status is cutting off their parents. More broadly, though, it makes the United States a much less attractive place for immigrants, particularly those whose skills give them options. People don’t just emigrate to a new country to make more money. They leave their homes in the hopes of building better lives for their families, and it has always been that way. Enacting policies to block that would put us at a competitive disadvantage to other countries and would increase disaffection and rootlessness among immigrants who do come here.

Those crunching the numbers estimate that this policy change alone could cut the approximately 1.1 million people who come to this country legally every year by as much as half. Given the outsized role immigrants play in entrepreneurship and innovation — not to mention the vitality they bring to an aging workforce — that is a heavy price to pay for keeping America as white and European as possible.

There is a deal to be struck here that accomplishes both sides’ ostensible goals — more funding for border security (if not a literal, physical wall from coast to coast) in exchange for protecting the Dreamers . Congress should take a pass on the Trump administration’s reactionary social engineering and get it done.

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