Trump’s US Immigration Reform Proposals

Trump models US Immigration reform on existing Canadian system

President Donald Trump has announced his backing of a US immigration reform bill, which if passed could provide the biggest shake-up in immigration rules in half a century or more.

Headline numbers suggest reductions over 10 years of up to half of the current rate of migrant admissions, which currently hovers at a rate of around 1 million new ‘Green Card’ holders annually.

Of course, overall reductions will be bad news for many, but a shift in policy could open opportunities for others who are locked out of the existing system.

Legal v. Illegal Immigration Policies

Trump’s announcement on 2 August addressed a question that had remained unanswered on the campaign trail, regarding his views on legal immigration.

By contrast, his views on illegal immigration have left little room for doubt.

His swift actions to increase immigration enforcement, ban travellers from some Muslim countries, and begin work on a cross-continent Mexican border wall, have heralded his preference to curtail immigration. 

The latest proposal, which is a re-launch of a Republican Congressional legislative initiative first filed earlier this year, reveals Trump’s intention to reduce legal immigration as well.

US Economy: Front and Centre

The stated goal of the reforms is to curb “non-economic” immigration.

Trump and his Congressional allies suggest excessive immigration places unnecessary economic strain on working Americans (Trump’s core constituency), while outdated immigration rules mean the US misses out on some of the most desirable foreign migrants.

“Among those who have been hit hardest in recent years are immigrants and minority workers competing for jobs against brand-new arrivals,” said Trump. “It has not been fair to our people, our citizens and our workers.”

English-speaking skilled migrants are currently drawn to jurisdictions such as Australia and Canada, which have immigration systems that place a premium on attracting educated foreign talent.

By contrast, current US immigration is overwhelmingly – and, Trump argues, disproportionately --focused on family reunification. 

Non-family immigration streams, including the H-1B, have been controversial and inadequate to domestic business demand for foreign talent.

Economic migrants welcome

A revamp of the US system along the lines of the systems in place in Australia or Canada could be a boon to skilled migrants who thought US immigration was off the table.

The bill would establish a new ranking system, in which applicants would be judged on median salary, advanced degrees, ability to speak English, whether they provide skills needed by the US economy, and their financial ability to afford health care.

"This competitive application system will favour applicants who can speak English, financially support themselves and their families, and demonstrate skills that can contribute to the US economy," Mr Trump said.

Trump policy aide Stephen Miller, who has long advocated immigration system reform and was key in drafting this legislation, said the proposed bill would cut back on "chain migration", a term used to describe sequential migration by extended families.

"We're proposing to limit family-based migration to spouses and minor children," said Miller. "The effect of this, switching to a skills-based system and ending unfettered chain migration, would be over time you would cut net migration in half, which polling shows supported overwhelmingly by the American people in very large numbers," said Miller.

The bill would also eliminate the international diversity visa lottery, and limit the annual number of refugee admissions.

Fewer family members welcome

The proposal deliberately sets out to reduce the eligibility of extended family members.

The Trump administration argues that this would be counterbalanced by a fresh emphasis on attracting skilled workers, whereas critics suggest this is merely window-dressing.

Opponents say while the proposal would cut immigration from categories like family reunification and the diversity visa, it does not increase skilled immigration despite creating a points-based system for employment-based green cards.

Critics have attacked the proposals as promoting and ethno-centric bias with respect to English language requirements, claim that reducing net migration would have a negative impact on the US economy, and moreover that the move is contrary to America’s history and tradition of being a welcoming port for the world’s migrants.

Either way, one of the most controversial aims of the legislation is that it would help to reduce US immigration numbers from a current rate of just over one million ‘Green Cards’ issued per year, to just over 500,000.

Numbers Game: Contrast with Canada

Trump administration officials have touted the fact that the proposed system is modelled on the Canadian system, which invites side-by-side comparison.

Canada is widely seen to have a reasonably progressive and well-functioning immigration system, so the adoption of a similar system by the Trump administration has left some critics stumbling for reasons why Trumps proposals are not progressive enough.

In that regard, a measure of the relative outcomes has been seized upon as the biggest difference.

The Canadian government – which is strongly pro-immigration -- is considering official recommendations that Canada should increase immigration to around 450,000 per year.

If Canada were to adopt that proposal, in tandem with the US adopting a Canadian style system as proposed by Trump, Canada’s intake could rise to US levels in real terms.  Intriguingly, that would also result in Canada having per capita immigration levels as much as 10 times higher than in the US.

What to Watch For

The short-term chances for Trump’s proposals are slim to none. Overall, his agenda has stalled, with the failure to modify Obama's health care reform, and dim prospects for promised tax reform.

However, that says more about the politics of Washington DC, than it does about the relative merits of the bill.

Having raised the profile of this particular version of change to legal immigration, it is worth considering what it might mean for the future course of US immigration reform.

Interestingly, the proposals rather turn the tables on critics who are natural allies of the liberal Trudeau administration in Canada. If Trump’s policy proposals are disturbing to Trump's left-leaning critics, that raises unsettling questions about Canada’s very similar policies, which have been in place for several years now -- and heralded as world-leading in terms of being both progressive and effective.

However, as we often caution our clients and readers, Canada’s policies are not nearly as liberal, nor as welcoming, as the reputation (and hype) they widely enjoy. 

If held to answer to the same scrutiny as Trump, Trudeau would have a hard time bridging the gap between his Twitter views (“To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada”) and the difficulty of actually obtaining Canadian permanent residency -- as a refugee or otherwise.

Which is not to say that Canada’s existing policies aren’t also a better way to run an immigration system than what the US has in place at the moment, perhaps especially so given the fact the US welcomes more than three times as many migrants annually.

What it does mean is that Trump’s critics are too blinded by the politics of the man to see any merit in the substance of his proposals.

Even if you’re not a fan of Trump, that’s a shame.

The US needs immigration reform, if only to rebalance a system that is out of date, and reflects the political realities of a half a century ago far better than it does today’s global geopolitics.

Setting aside the targeted reduction on admissions -- which are easily adjusted by political whim, much as we have seen them adjusted north of the border – there are good arguments to be made to suggest a Canadian system would be a step forward for the US.

Whatever the headlines blare, US Immigration reform could be a long time coming. The fact that Trump's proposals would be the biggest shake-up in half a century is a good indication of how long it takes to change this area of the law in the US.

In the meantime, and for the foreseeable future, migrants who are determined to get to North America would do best to keep Canada on their short list.

The opportunities Canada offers now might eventually show-up in the US rule-book, but why wait?

Those same policies are available for Canadian immigrants today.

Oh, and did we mention the world-class Canadian health care system...  


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