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Trump Breaks With Business Lobby On Proposal To Curtail Legal Immigration


When it comes to immigration, what is best for the American workforce and economy? That's a question that's emerged after President Trump announced yesterday that he's backing a proposal in Congress to dramatically cut back legal immigration. Trump says he wants to protect American workers who he says are being edged out by immigrants. But the business lobby says that what the U.S. needs is more immigrants to goose economic growth. NPR's John Burnett is here in the studio with us. Hey there, John.


CORNISH: So first remind us exactly what this immigration reduction initiative would do.

BURNETT: So the proposed law would fundamentally change who gets invited into this country and who gets a green card for legal residence. Trump wants to cut the number of green cards from about a million annually, which is the current level, to half of that over a decade. They want to switch from a family-based to what's called a chain immigration approach. Most foreign nationals today who apply for permanent residency in the U.S. have a direct relative who's already living here. And the new law wants to change that to a system that favors those who are more skilled, immigrants who are better trained, who speak English and have better educations and are less likely to use public benefits.

CORNISH: Right. They call that a merit-based system. Why are opponents frustrated with this proposal?

BURNETT: Well, they say - their argument is an economic one, and they say that the U.S. population is already growing at its slowest pace since the Great Depression. And the only way to keep the workforce growing is these continued high numbers of legal immigration.

So many of the pro-business people I've spoken with in recent months say the U.S. already has one of the highest immigration rates in the world, and we should be expanding that, not shrinking it. And this won't hurt the U.S. workers who are already here. Let's listen to Alex Nowrasteh. He's an immigration policy analyst at the free trade think tank the Cato Institute

ALEX NOWRASTEH: There hasn't been a problem with this in the United States. There hasn't been an issue with this holding down wages or decreasing employment or anything else of this category. Now, the problem is not that we allow in too many family members. It's that we don't allow enough workers and entrepreneurs.

CORNISH: Can we talk more about this idea of entrepreneurs because I thought the issue was mainly that business wanted more unskilled labor?

BURNETT: Well, they say they want both. They're also concerned that if we narrow the gate, we're going to weaken the very thing that has helped give our nation its genius for innovation. And that's the newcomers. Here's Tamar Jacoby. She's director of ImmigrationWorks USA. It's a pro-business group that wants more legal workers.

TAMAR JACOBY: As any economist will tell you, there's two ingredients of economic growth, right? One is innovation, and the other is a growing labor force. You need both things to have economic growth.

BURNETT: Jacoby goes on to list the contributions that immigrants make to the labor force - 25 percent of our doctors, 25 percent of our nurses and 50 percent of Ph.D. scientists. And of course the proponents of a merit-based immigration system would argue that skilled workers and professionals - these are the new Americans they're looking for.

CORNISH: One more thing, John - this issue of Canada's system of immigration - we've been hearing a lot about it because that is a point-based system.


CORNISH: Is this the way the U.S. wants to go?

BURNETT: Well, there's a lot of admiration for our northern neighbor that they've been both generous to refugees and selective about who gets to come into the country and work. I spoke to Stuart Anderson. He's executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy. It's a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on trade and immigration. He was head of immigration policy in the George W. Bush administration. And Anderson says the best way to tell if a foreign worker is a good fit is if an employer is interested in hiring them.

STUART ANDERSON: To go away from any role for the employer and have it all decided by some bureaucratic point system really gets into the situation of the stereotypical Ph.D. cab driver.

BURNETT: And in Canada, they do complain about taxi cab drivers who have Ph.D.s. These are overqualified immigrants who don't match up with available jobs. In other words, Anderson and others I spoke with would say, let the market, not the government, decide who and how many workers should be invited into the U.S.

CORNISH: That's NPR's John Burnett. John, thank you.

BURNETT: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.