President Donald Trump’s immigration policies are, like much else, a confusing mix of tweets and false starts, but I took one signal clearly: He doesn’t think there’s room in our country and economy for families like mine. As I read his recent proposal to reform the legal immigration system, I found that my dad, a bilingual college-educated engineer, would be welcome, but not my mom, who never went to college and spoke little English when she accompanied my dad from Bolivia.
In this nation built on centuries of immigration, the judgments we’ve made over those centuries—about who gets to come and who doesn’t—reflect a lot of things: our economic needs, our values, the politics of the moment, and our respect for our own history. Given the dynamic nature of those judgments, it’s reasonable to do some periodic soul searching about what we want from our legal immigration system. But the Trump proposal pushes the debate toward one pole: fewer immigrants overall, fewer families and fewer “unskilled” immigrants, in exchange for those who are more “economically desirable.”
Some people on the left have even voiced support for this view. But the argument for curtailing unskilled immigration is based on three faulty assumptions: that the legal immigration system somehow favors the unskilled; that immigration is a zero-sum situation where more high-skilled immigration must come at the expense of family immigration; and that unskilled immigrants are undesirable in the first place. Each of these beliefs is wrong for both economic and moral reasons.
First, the legal immigration system doesn’t favor the unskilled. There hasn’t been a visa category for unskilled legal immigrants for decades. In other words, if a low-skilled person from another country seeks to become an immigrant to the United States, there’s no line—at all—for them to get into. Some come illegally, though the numbers for those have dropped to the lowest level in at least 40 years. It’s true that we have a sizable presence of 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States—and we’ll continue the debate on how to address that for the foreseeable future. But the legal immigration system doesn’t touch on this problem, except that long backlogs for family immigrants sometimes provide incentives for families to reunite outside of the law.
Second, the legal immigration system does favor the families of Americans, and some of these family members, like my mother, can be described as unskilled. The sentimental reasons to preserve family immigration should be obvious—surely we want Americans to be able to reunite with their spouses and children. But family immigration serves more than an emotional purpose. Those who argue that we should clamp down on family immigration in favor of “quality” in our immigration flow make the case that, in this competitive global economy, we can’t afford sentimentality; we should choose the world’s best and brightest. This argument misses the point that we’re in a better position to compete if we recognize that the talented workers we seek to draw here will want to know that their families can join them.
Immigration restrictionists often cite the Canadian and Australian immigration systems as evidence that a point system that favors high-skilled immigrants can work. They fail to mention that both Canada and Australia also have generous family immigration policies. The bipartisan bill that passed the U.S. Senate did the same, balancing family immigration and proposing a new point system; there’s no need to pit one against the other. For all of the seductive qualities of the United States, why would we put ourselves in a position to lose talent to, say, Canada because we clamped down on family immigration? The fact of the matter is that reuniting families through legal immigration serves both our values and our strategic, or economic, purposes.
Finally, the core issue: Does America even have room for immigrants who don’t bring technical preparation or similar skills to our modern economy? The economic evidence is nuanced. On one hand, there’s clear evidence that increased immigration of the type we currently have will lead to increased economic growth. This has been confirmed over and over again, including via recent work by the National Academy of Sciences and a recent analysis by Moody’s Analytics for ProPublica, which developed an interactive chart that allows you to watch gross domestic product rise as immigration levels go up. Even undocumented immigrants contribute mightily to the economy; a recent report by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that they contribute 3 percent of private-sector GDP annually, which amounts to close to $5 trillion over 10 years.
But there must be a point at which increased immigration will negatively affect the wages of those who already are here, right?
If there is, we apparently have not reached it yet. For years, researchers have shown, and the National Academy of Sciences has recently reconfirmed, that the impact of immigrants on native workers is very small. To the extent that there’s competition, low-skilled immigrants tend to compete with their unskilled co-ethnics, and they tend to advance over time.
In the end, however, this nation of immigrants needs to decide who we are, and who we want to be in the future—particularly in light of the increasing hand-wringing over Trump’s recent announcement to curtail more immigration provisions. I have an answer, and it’s similar to the one given by Arizona Republican Sen, Jeff Flake, who was part of the 2013 bipartisan group that balanced family and skilled immigration in a way that rejected the zero-sum approach to immigration reform. Flake argues that “there must always be a place in America for those whose only initial credentials are a strong back and an eagerness to use it.” He’s right about that. I’d go further, and say that, as much as I believe that the country benefitted from my dad’s engineering skills, it also benefitted from my mother’s charisma, her talent for building community, and her deep loyalty to her adopted country. I wouldn’t have ended up as an adviser to President Barack Obama without her. A point system and a legislative debate can’t fully do justice to what makes us strongest; we became the nation that we are due to strong skills, strong backs—and also strong hearts.
Cecilia Muñoz served as domestic policy adviser to President Barack Obama. She is the current vice president of policy and technology at New America.