A triumphant but low-key President Trump took to center stage Tuesday night at the U.S. Capitol to deliver his third State of the Union address. The president had recently returned from maligned Iowa where, in the Republican caucus, he smothered his two GOP challengers, former U.S. Representative Joe Walsh and former Massachusetts Governor William Weld. President Trump received 97 percent of the vote. And with his Senate acquittal a forgone conclusion, President Trump, in buoyant spirits, touted the economy, low unemployment rates and his successful U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.
The policy that President Trump can’t get right and which could be his strongest hand, assuming he played his cards skillfully, is immigration. During his address, President Trump stayed on safe ground regarding his immigration achievements and future hopes. The president praised Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and slammed sanctuary cities. He pushed for a new law that would ban providing medical benefits to illegal aliens. And President Trump endorsed a merit-based immigration system, a view he and his advisors – daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner – have previously promoted.
But imagine if President Trump had deviated from safe terrain and instead relied on the last 55 years of immigration history and its consequences to make his case for sensible legal immigration reductions, and for stricter border and interior enforcement.
Beginning in 1965, Presidents Johnson, Reagan and Bush 41 signed into law three major immigration acts: the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and the Immigration Act of 1990. The collective and inarguable results of those three laws have been significant increases in immigration that’s contributed to U.S. population growth, and a huge bump in the numbers of employment-based temporary visas issued that have displaced American workers. Illegal immigration has also spiked and has reached a total of anywhere from 11 to 22 million. Yale University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers found evidence that 22 million is accurate, and discredited the conservative 11 million.
A Pew Research analysis reported that the U.S., despite repeated allegations of being anti-immigrant, has more immigrants than any other country in the world. More than 44 million U.S. residents were born abroad, slightly fewer than one in seven among the overall population. The Migration Policy Institute documented that, as of 2017, more than 18 million children with at least one immigrant parent were born in the U.S.
Since 1965, the number of immigrants in the U.S. has quadrupled. Assuming the status quo remains unchanged, the Census Bureau projects that by 2065 immigrants and their children will represent 88 percent of U.S. population growth when the population will exceed 400 million. The dramatic level of population growth that immigration contributes to is unsustainable, and worthy of an intelligent congressional debate that the president could, and should, insist on.
As for immigration’s effect on jobs, the more than 1 million immigrants that enter the U.S. annually receive lifetime-valid employment authorization documents. Piling on, the Immigration Act of 1990 created the U.S. tech workers’ biggest nightmare, the H-1B visa, and the shameful citizenship for sale visa, the EB-5. Immigration, especially in such high numbers, means looser labor markets, the exact opposite of what U.S. workers deserve – tight markets.
Finally, for reasons known only to President Trump, he again studiously avoided mention of E-Verify, the federal program that helps ensure that only citizens and legally present immigrants can hold U.S. jobs. By an 81 percent majority, Americans support E-Verify because, among its other benefits, it will help working-age blacks and Hispanics without a college degree find employment.
If President Trump truly wanted to help “flourishing families” and to sustain the “blue-collar boom” – two phrases he used in his address – he would vocally advocate for less immigration which would translate into more available jobs and higher wages. Immigration helped carry President Trump to the White House, and he once endorsed lower immigration levels. President Trump could distinguish himself from his Democratic presidential opposition which favors open borders, and gutting interior enforcement.
The president’s moment to make a strong, fact-based immigration reduction argument in his SOTU address has passed, but it’s not necessarily gone forever. President Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign should reinforce the lower immigration levels that Americans want.