US Immigration Reform in Our Lifetime

The makings of a legacy policy

The phrase ‘only Nixon could have gone to China’ neatly summarised how hawkish foreign policy gave Nixon the clout necessary to begin normalising relations with communist China.  

Could it be that President Donald ‘Art of the Deal’ Trump’s immigration reform efforts result in a similarly worthy legacy? 

Certainly the ‘We’re gonna build a wall’ campaign-trail schtick puts him squarely in the ‘hawkish’ category.  

We're gonna build a . . . bridge?

The intriguing question is whether he actually ends up building a bridge – both to a new class of educated migrants, and to the Congressional Democrats who might back such a scheme (all the usual horse-trading aside).

Recent headlines suggest this may not be too far fetched a possibility.

When it comes to immigration opportunities, the United States remains an impossible dream for most, despite welcoming over 1 million new (legal) arrivals every year.

For others, it’s a cake walk.  The difference?

Mostly luck: arguably not the best foundation for sound public policy.

There's yer trouble

As former President Obama said in 2014:

“Today, our immigration system is broken, and everybody knows it. Families who enter our country the right way and play by the rules watch others flout the rules. Business owners who offer their workers good wages and benefits see competition exploit undocumented immigrants by paying them far less. All of us take offense to anyone who reaps the rewards of living in American without taking on the responsibilities of living in America. And undocumented immigrants who desperately want to embrace those responsibilities see little option but to remain in the shadows, or risk their families being torn apart.”

For a nation built by immigrants, this remains a sore irony – and a policy conundrum. To say these laws need to be revised risks laughable understatement.

Yet the last time US immigration laws experienced wholesale revisions, NASA was still sending astronauts to the moon.

Not whether, but what

The problem is that the politics of what those revisions should be has remained elusive, and so nothing significant has changed in more than 40 years.

Interestingly, Canada’s more meritocratic immigration system has been something of an inspiration to Trump and the Congressional authors of the immigration reform Trump is backing.

Amusingly, as Canada prides itself on its progressive policies, most Canadians would blanche at the idea that Trump has embraced a policy at the core of their national identity. Yet ironically enough, that seems to be just what he has done. 

Losers and winners

The losers from Trump's reforms would likely come from the ranks of the many people who have close relatives in the US, and who enjoy sponsorship by those family members to join them in the States. 

This type of sponsorship has picked up the (derogatory) moniker ‘chain migration’, with its connotations of granting one migrant a visa, and ending up with a chain of family members following them as part of the deal.

So while eliminating some of those options could leave many (arguably, hundreds of thousands of applicants) worse off, those numbers could ultimately be offset by the many, many migrants worldwide who could stand to benefit.

Trump's immigration reforms could be very good news for well-educated and experienced, skilled workers looking to go to the US. 

Not dead yet

Immigration reform remains a key target for Trump, as his tough talk on illegal immigration formed a key part of his appeal to his core supporters.

When we first wrote about this six months ago, Trump’s reputation was still suffering from his failure to either revoke, rewind or in any substantial way revised Obama’s health care policies, and his chances of passing comprehensive tax reform looked weak at best.

Now, by contrast, Trump’s tax package has passed. The jury is out on whether Trump’s core supporters will benefit from the tax bill (or anyone else for that matter, save corporate shareholders and -- if this isn't redundant -- the rich) , but there’s no question that an immigration reform victory is looking much more likely.  

If there is a shake-up, as we now expect there might well be, what was once an impossible dream might suddenly become an achievable reality.

So, just as we wrote back in August 2017, watch this space.

Or, pass on the political drama, skip the queue, and check out Canada!


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