There are a lot of things right with Donald Trump's immigration vision and a few things that are misguided. It's worth reviewing which is which.
I was privileged to learn my immigration economics and history from the very best, Julian Simon. I was a research assistant for his classic book "The Economic Consequences of Immigration into the United States," which, nearly 30 years after publication, remains the best tutorial out there for anyone who wants to understand how immigrants affect our jobs and our pocketbooks.
Every policymaker working on the issue today would be the wiser if they went back and read it.
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The big picture starts with this: America greatly benefits economically from a steady flow of immigrants (currently about 1 million new legal arrivals each year) – always has and hopefully always will. It's not a cliche that we import the best, brightest and hardest-working from all over the world.
Immigrants' age profile is beneficial to the U.S. They tend to come to the United States when they are young – between the ages of 16 and 35. They are educated in China, or Mexico, or Germany, or Ireland, and then America gets most or all of the benefits of their labor and the public return on the education.
This is one of the greatest wealth transfers in the history of the world. It is worth trillions of dollars to American citizens. Not every immigrant turns out to be an asset – and, yes, there are bad apples – but America's ability to import human capital at virtually no cost is arguably one of our greatest comparative advantages in the global economy.
Immigrants are especially beneficial now because of our unfavorable demographic situation. We have some 75 million baby boomers who are retiring at the pace of 10,000 a day, and there aren't enough young people to fill the gaps. Immigrants can and hopefully will – or else Social Security and Medicare will go belly up much faster than anyone imagines.
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So what are the central components of an "America First" immigration policy?
- Build the wall, but make sure it has big gates. Getting tough on illegal immigration makes sense, but we should not cut back on the number of visas for legal immigrants. We need them.
- President Trump is right that we should move to a merit-based immigration system. While most immigrants give more than they receive, it is incontrovertible that the fiscal and economic benefits of immigrants are directly correlated to their skills, special talents, knowledge of English, educational attainment and entrepreneurial abilities.
- Since there is such a high global demand for entry into the U.S., we should set a price on these visas, perhaps $25,000 or even $50,000. We could raise about $20 billion a year to reduce the budget deficit. There would be no shortage of people lining up to pay the entry fee in exchange for the most valuable resource in the world: an American passport.
- Issue work visas for farm and other seasonal workers. These should be temporary visas that authorize these migrants to work and reside here. Americans aren't going to work in the fields. Period.
- End the visa family category for parents of immigrants. There is no benefit to bringing in people over the age of 60. They are likely to use Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid benefits, while having paid little in taxes.
- Immigration, yes – but welfare, no. Immigrants should not be eligible for any nonmedical welfare benefits. The current restrictions – on food stamps, housing benefits, SSI, disability and so on – have been unenforced for years. Immigrants who need financial assistance should get it from their sponsors, churches, charities or relatives, not American taxpayers. We need E-verify not just at workplaces but also in welfare offices. Immigrants who do go on welfare should have their visas suspended.
Under these conditions, it's hard to imagine that millions of bright, hardworking and freedom-seeking immigrants would not want to come to the United States. The most valuable asset in the world is a U.S. passport, and we should stop giving it away for free.