The bad economics of Trump's bad immigration policy

U.S. Border Patrol agents take into custody a father and son from Honduras near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 near Mission, Texas. The asylum seekers were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing center for possible separation.
U.S. Border Patrol agents take into custody a father and son from Honduras near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 near Mission, Texas. The asylum seekers were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing center for possible separation. (John Moore / Getty Images)

The Trump-produced horror show at the U.S. border represents the rock-bottom of American responses to the challenge of immigration — a cruel and immoral abuse of children for midterm political gain by a cynical president — but it comes at the end of a long, tortured road.

For 30 years, since President Ronald Reagan’s offer of amnesty and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, Congress has failed to build a comprehensive and sustainable system. Why? Super-partisanship in Washington; the incessant demonizing of undocumented workers and the myth that they steal jobs from American citizens; and strident opposition to repeating Reagan’s practical and humane gesture that brought 2.7 million people out of the shadows.


Reagan’s style of Republican seems pretty much Paleozoic today.

“What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” is the tired phrase that ends discussion of how we address the millions of undocumented immigrants already in the country and the millions more who want to move here.


In the long wake of 9/11, anti-immigrant fever ran at a steady, low simmer. And then Donald J. Trump fanned the flames.

Remember: In 2015, when he announced that he would run for president, Trump held up immigrants as a great threat to the country — if not the greatest threat.

“The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else's problems,” he said, moments later adding his infamous blast at Mexicans: “When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. ... They're sending people that have lots of problems. ... They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.”

It took about three years for that ugly expression to become official policy, and here we are, treating immigrants from Central America as criminals and using the draconian tactic of family separation to inflict as much pain as possible on those who try to cross the border, even those who seek asylum.

To what end?

What I don’t get — what I have never understood — is why Republicans with any memory of Reagan allow Trump to use immigration to stoke fears when it should be used to stoke the economy.

What happened to Republican affection for the “market argument”?

The “market argument” usually impresses the hardest conservatives on the American scene, especially the owners of businesses.

Consider the subject of ex-offenders released from prison.

Americans across the political spectrum, even those with tough, law-and-order attitudes, accept the argument that, without second chances — support in making a transition from prison to freedom, an opportunity for employment despite a criminal record — “returning citizens” are at risk of committing more offenses, causing further harm to people and property.

The “market argument” is that successful transitions turn felons into productive workers and taxpayers, reduce prison populations and allow for significant savings in government spending on incarceration.

Back to immigration: Reagan was a champion of business and lower taxes, and, as a former California governor, he saw the importance of immigrants to commerce.


Today, there is an even greater case for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a smart and humane approach to border policy and greater U.S. intervention in Central American nations where conflict and crime drive so many families north.

The argument is straightforward: Without more immigrants, the nation will not continue to grow and prosper. There will be disruptions in regional economies.

Case in point: The shortage this summer of crab pickers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The pickers are seasonal workers from Mexico, not immigrants, but the dilemma faced by their usual employers — the result of more restrictive policies of the Trump administration — highlights the fact that certain businesses need migrant laborers to do work Americans won’t do.

Maryland crab houses hoping to get lucky in a bonus lottery for 15,000 immigrant guest worker visas mostly lost out again, meaning they will likely go the summer without their normal work force. The Eastern Shore picking houses supply most of the local meat sold in restaurants and stores.

Other factors:

The steady departure of baby boomers from the workforce. Noting the pace of boomer retirement, the Pew Research Center found that immigrants, both legal and undocumented, will comprise the major part of workforce growth over the coming decades.

The U.S. birthrate dropped sharply in 2017 to its lowest level in 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, the CDC noted, the birthrate has been below “the level at which a given generation can exactly replace itself” since 1971.

The most recent unemployment rate, at 3.8 percent, is the lowest it has been in a couple of decades, and in several regions there are more jobs in a wide range of industries than workers to fill them.

We are going to need more tax-paying immigrants to maintain Social Security and Medicare. “Without working-age immigrants steadily expanding the American labor force, the trust funds would be going broke even faster than they are now,” former editor George Melloan wrote in The Wall Street Journal last week.

In face of this, what do we get? We get an immigration policy that is restrictionist and harsh, based on an obsessive, irrational fear of outsiders rather than on rational recognition of what the country needs — and what it should stand for.

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