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Robert J. Samuelson: Commonsense immigration for the 21st century

We are a nation of immigrants who are uneasy about immigration. There is a long history of resentment against immigrants, dating to the Irish immigrants in the 1840s and the Chinese a few decades later. This contrasts with our demonstrated ability to absorb newcomers. It’s time to overcome this two-headed legacy with an immigration policy for the 21st century.

What would such a policy look like?

Most of the so-called “Dreamers” would receive legal status, as would many other undocumented residents who had led law-abiding lives. In return, there would be tougher border security (including a “wall” or its equivalent) and a requirement that most employers check immigration status through an electronic network (such as E-Verify). These steps would dramatically reduce the number of illegal immigrants.

As for legal immigration, there would be a ceiling of about 1 million annually, which until recently was roughly the level of admissions. But there would be a fundamental change in the criteria for legal immigration, from family connections to workplace skills. The better educated immigrants are, the easier for them to adapt to a new society.

There are at least three reasons to support this sort of system.

First, the existing system has increased U.S. poverty, driven by inflows of poorly skilled legal and illegal workers. It’s as if there were an agency called the Unskilled Workers Bureau dedicated to increasing U.S. poverty.

Consider. From 1980 to 2016, the number of people with incomes below the government poverty line rose by 11.3 million (from 29.3 million to 40.6 million). Fully two-thirds of those, or 7.6 million, were Hispanic. Much of this increase clearly reflected the impact of immigrants and their children.

Second, the status quo promotes lawlessness and repression that, rightly, offend – for different reasons – those on all sides of the immigration debate. One side sees undocumented immigrants as lawbreakers who should admit their crime and suffer the consequences by being deported. Given the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, this seems unlikely. The other side views the unending enforcement actions – raids on homes and businesses – as the terrifying tactics of a police state that are unworthy of the United States. There is no real way of breaking this stalemate except by starting anew.

Third, skilled immigrants are good for the economy. True, they can’t single-handedly boost annual economic growth to 3 or 4 percent from the 2 percent-plus of recent years. But every little bit helps. One area where immigrants shine is entrepreneurship. In a study of new firms, the husband-wife team of economists William Kerr of Harvard and Sari Pekkala Kerr of Wellesley College found that about one-quarter of company founders were immigrants.

All this is increasingly relevant, because after declining for a few years, immigration is again growing. Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group favoring tighter immigration policies, estimates that new immigrants in 2016 totaled nearly 1.8 million, which – if confirmed by the final count – would tie with 1999 as the highest in history.

As a group, there are now more than 43 million immigrants in the United States, legal and illegal, representing about 13 percent of the population, reports the Migration Policy Institute, which generally supports looser policies. The U.S.-born children of immigrants constitute a group almost the same size. This means that about a quarter of the total U.S. population are either immigrants or their offspring.

What matters is how easily these new Americans integrate with the old Americans. There’s some good news. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently released two studies reporting significant gains among immigrants. Compared with U.S.-born workers, they are experiencing rising wages. More are going to college. Their English proficiency is advancing at historic rates.

But there’s a paradox. To make past immigration succeed, you need to limit present immigration. Otherwise, the pressures of coping with new groups become more contentious. How is poverty to be reduced if the ranks of the poor are constantly replenished with new immigrant poor? Admitting more low-paid workers makes it harder for the last wave of low-paid immigrants – their main competitors – to advance.

Similarly, more poor immigrant children will strain state and local school budgets. And there’s a whole array of cultural and historic differences between natives and immigrants – and among immigrants themselves. The ability to absorb new immigrants is one of the glories of the American project, but it is not infinite. It must give way to practical realities.

The outline of a commonsense immigration policy exists. What’s unclear is whether the Trump administration and its critics have the political courage to translate the general principles – many of which seem to command support – into a workable system that balances the needs of new and old Americans.

Robert J. Samuelson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.