The Trump White House Immigration Proposal is Contrary to the Common Good

Catholic Social Ethics

On Thursday, the Trump White House made public its proposal for an immigration deal. The proposal has four main components. First, the plan would provide legal status, and eventually citizenship, not only to the approximately 690,000 individuals currently protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, but to the much larger group of 1.8 million undocumented immigrants (“Dreamers”) who were eligible to apply for DACA. Second, the White House is asking for $25 billion to build a wall and enhance border security. The third component is the elimination of family reunification visas for parents, adult children, and siblings of U.S. citizens and green card holders, limiting them to spouses and minor children. And the fourth component is the replacement of the diversity lottery visa system with a visa based on “merit.”

Most analysts believe that the proposal is “dead on arrival” in Congress. Immigration activists and most Democrats will reject the plan because of its cuts to family reunification visas. Some go so far as to claim that the proposal cynically holds Dreamers for ransom in exchange for a racially-motivated effort to curb legal immigration to the U.S. Immigration restrictionists and some Republicans will reject the plan because it provides a path to citizenship for almost 2 million undocumented immigrants. Other Republican plans had proposed providing legal status only to the 690,000 individuals already enrolled in DACA, without providing them a path to full citizenship.

The proposal also fails from the perspective of Catholic social teaching. The overall intent of the proposal seems to be to close the United States off from future immigration, by restricting legal immigration and ramping up border security to prevent illegal immigration, while taking a more pragmatic approach to addressing those undocumented immigrants already in the United States. As I have argued recently, such an approach fails to consider immigration comprehensively, which would mean looking at the “push” and “pull” factors that lead people to migrate, in some cases illegally. It also ignores the right of people to migrate and the responsibility of wealthy countries such as the United States to welcome immigrants.

Perhaps the most objectionable part of the proposal is the elimination of family reunification visas for adult children, parents, and siblings. As I noted in the article cited above, immigration restrictionists have used the rhetoric of “chain migration” in an attempt to turn public opinion against family reunification, despite the fact that the American people are generally favorable toward keeping immigration at present levels or even increasing those levels. Yet, as the Catholic bishops of the United States have pointed out, it is important for our immigration policy to reflect the importance of family in both personal development and the promotion of the common good, even family that extends beyond the “immediate family” of spouses and children. In addition, the presence of family members such as parents and siblings likely increases the chances of immigrants successfully integrating into American society.

It is also important to consider how drastic the proposed cuts to legal immigration are and the large-scale effects such cuts would have on American society. Drawing on statistics published by the Department of Homeland Security, here are the numbers of individuals issued green cards in 2016 in the categories the White House proposal would cut:

  • Parents of U.S. citizens: 173,854
  • Unmarried adult children of U.S. citizens: 22,072
  • Married adult children of U.S. citizens: 27,392
  • Siblings of U.S. citizens: 67,356
  • Diversity: 49,865

So in total the proposal would mean eliminating nearly 350,000 visas, or almost 30% of the 1,183,505 immigrant visas issued last year. Even if one doesn’t count the diversity lottery visas, which may be replaced by a “merit-based” visa, the total still comes to about 25% of total immigrant visas.

Although certainly not all of these immigrants, particularly parents, are employed, the majority of them are. Dramatic cuts such as those proposed in the White House plan would have a significant impact on the work force which would likely have a negative effect on the economy, both in terms of productivity and consumption. The United States already faces pressures on entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security as a result of the shrinking proportion of the adult population in the work force, and significant cuts to immigration would exacerbate those pressures. These problems are somewhat mitigated by the fact that the White House’s proposal would allow those who have already applied for visas to complete the process, in essence clearing out the current waiting list, which would mean it would be several years before there was a significant drop in the number of new immigrants, and therefore before the policy had significant effects on the economy.

That qualification, however, does not mitigate the fact that cutting the number of visas available each year would create new incentives for illegal immigration. One of the main drivers of illegal immigration is the difficulty in immigrating through legal means. Almost all green cards are issued to those who have employee sponsors or who are closely related to U.S. citizens or other green card holders, leaving few options for those who do not meet those criteria. Even those who do qualify for a green card often face waiting times of ten or more years as a result of both quotas on the number of visas issued each year and on the number of visas issued to citizens of the same country in a given year. Further limiting the number and types of visas issued would only increase the number of people seeking to enter the country illegally, creating pressures that even a wall and increased spending on border security could not contain.

The White House’s proposal also prohibits the parents of Dreamers from obtaining legal status. This is contrast to the proposal recently developed by a group of U.S. senators, including Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. Dick Durbin, which would have provided these parents with a temporary, renewable legal status, but no path to citizenship. This aspect of the proposal highlights one of the dilemmas surrounding DACA and the Dreamers: the fact that Dreamers were illegally brought to the U.S. as children makes them particularly sympathetic to the broader public, but at the risk of creating a division between “deserving” immigrants and “undeserving” ones. This division focuses exclusively on the individual merits of immigrants while downplaying the institutional factors contributing to illegal immigration, such as those mentioned above. It is entirely possible that a later immigration bill might address the situation of Dreamers’ parents, as well as the millions of other undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S., but the opposition the Trump White House’s Dreamer proposal has aroused among conservatives means that is unlikely, at least as long as Republicans control Congress.

Catholic social teaching is not opposed in principle to a deal on immigration that addresses some of the concerns of those who do not share the Catholic bishops’ views on the issue. Present visa categories and quotas are not immutable. But the White House proposal, as Dreamers themselves have pointed out, holds the Dreamers hostage in return for changes to the immigration system that do not promote the common good. The Dreamers not only have a moral claim on legal status, but also have overwhelming support from the public. It does not make sense to make their status conditional on reforms to the immigration system that are unpopular, would separate families, and would potentially do significant harm to the U.S. economy.

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