President Trump’s announcement late Tuesday night that he would sign an executive order “to temporarily suspend immigration” was met with predictable charges of racism, xenophobia, and scapegoating from mainstream media pundits and Democrats who see it as a cynical attempt to use the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to enact his hardline immigration agenda.
But in fact an executive order suspending all immigration would just be a formal acknowledgement of the current status quo. The emergency measures the Trump administration has put in place to restrict international travel and close the border have already effectively suspended immigration. Almost no visas are being issued to noncitizens right now, and the exceptions currently in place for health care and agricultural workers would also be part of any executive order suspending immigration, according to administration officials.
So why issue an order in the first place? Without attempting to read the mind of Trump or parse his tweets, I can think of a few good reasons to emphasize or even formalize a suspension of immigration right now. For one thing, the pandemic has exposed the folly of a globalized trade system that relies on far-flung supply chains and Chinese manufacturing. Part of what we need to be thinking about right now is how to bring jobs back to the United States when all this is over—including low-skilled factory jobs that have been shipped overseas for decades now, driving down the wages of American workers.
Democrats, media commentators, and immigration activists will all object that immigration doesn’t affect American workers at all, and that immigrants help strengthen the economy. And to some extent that’s true. But immigration isn’t an unmitigated good. Its benefits are spread unevenly, especially when it comes to illegal or low-skilled immigration.
Scholars like Harvard’s George Borjas have shown how low-skilled immigration hurts low-skilled American workers—those truly at the bottom of the economic ladder, like high-school dropouts. For these Americans, immigration, both legal and illegal, has increased the size of the low-skilled workforce in recent decades by about 25 percent, which in turn has lowered wages for this entire group.
Of course, that’s not a good enough reason to shut down all immigration, and the Trump administration isn’t proposing to do so. One White House official told CNN that the executive order would contain exemptions for farm workers, health care providers, and other occupations deemed essential. Objections that Trump immigration suspension would, say, harm first responders are unfounded, as those workers would almost certainly be considered essential.
And that’s as it should be. A re-vamped immigration system is long overdue—our current system of family-based immigration dates from 1965—and should be configured to serve the interests of Americans above all, which means basing immigration on skills, not family ties. The need for a skills-based immigration system, or what the president has called a “merit-based” system, is something the Trump administration has been remarkably consistent about.
Maybe suspending immigration temporarily won’t change much in the short term, given the emergency measures already in place. But it might help to reset the immigration discussion so that when this is all over we can really grapple with immigration reform and devise a system that serves American interests and is accountable to American voters. There’s going to be a lot of changes to the status quo in a post-coronavirus world, and our broken immigration system is one of them. Time to start getting serious about it.