Every time I hear that President Trump is talking about immigrants, I wonder what cruel language he has come up with to describe us — “rapists,” “drug dealers,” “invaders.” But now Mr. Trump is talking immigration again, and this time, he is making some sense.
In fact, the president has laid out a trap for liberals to fall into.
The centerpiece of Mr. Trump’s proposal is a promise to move the United States away from a system that favors family sponsorship toward one that favors “merit” or skills-based immigration. Whether judged according to merit or family ties, immigrants are already better educated than their native-born counterparts. So if Mr. Trump wants to shift the debate to skills, liberals should take him up on his offer.
Unlike his previous proposals, this one would not reduce the total number of immigrants allowed in. This might feel like a minor victory, but it drastically undercuts the far-right fantasy of shutting America’s borders. No wonder reactionaries like Ann Coulter see this as a sellout. White nationalists in particular see high-skilled immigrants as the greatest threat. What could be scarier to a white supremacist than thousands of immigrants who are better educated and more employable than he is?
By proposing no immigration cuts, Mr. Trump has conceded the fundamental liberal premise that America needs immigrants. It is only a question of which immigrants are selected, and how.
Of course, there is plenty to despise in the plan: the construction of a border wall, the silence on the fate of the Dreamers. Democrats must fight tooth and nail on these policies and propose more humane enforcement of immigration laws. But on the core premise of preferring highly skilled immigrants, Mr. Trump has a point.
The trap for liberals is that we’ll overreact to what is essentially a moderate proposal. This would let Mr. Trump slap his name on the “merit-based” argument, one that most Americans would find reasonable. Mr. Trump would then own the center of the debate and be able to cast anyone to his left as too extreme.
Liberals would have to explain why they don’t like highly skilled immigrants and would end up looking confused, while conservatives would get to play the role of mature border enforcers. Millions of migrants would be caught in the middle.
Finally, an outright rejection by liberals would give Mr. Trump cover for more reactionary or extreme immigration measures down the line.
Mr. Trump has cited my country, Canada, as a model for this kind of plan, and it’s true: Immigration has worked in Canada. Unlike in the United States, a vast majority of immigrants to Canada are evaluated on their skills and qualifications and whether those match the needs of the labor market.
It’s an imperfect system — what policy isn’t? — but it is the reason Canadians are broadly content that their country has one of the highest rates of immigration in the world. The success of the merit-based system also permits the government to have the generous refugee and humanitarian policies that it does.
My father migrated to Canada from Pakistan in the 1970s, under the first Prime Minister Trudeau. Like many immigrants, he walked in the snow to his first job and never lost the feeling that he was incredibly privileged to be living there. Whatever “merit” he may have possessed, it was the immigrant ethos of tenacity, discipline and resourcefulness that really mattered. One of the lessons he imparted to his children was that the law had allowed us to be here and we must always respect that law.
Canada’s success story is now under threat, as it faces its own migration crisis fueled by thousands of undocumented migrants crossing over from America. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has begun tightening border security as the far right continues to exploit racial anxieties.
When an immigration system becomes overburdened, even immigrants and their children can become pessimistic. I have heard Canadians of Hungarian, West Indian and Pakistani origin all express frustration that more recent arrivals have jumped the line. Part of this is the very human tendency of immigrants to pull up the drawbridge after they have crossed over. Part of it is a sincere belief that the integrity of the system that brought them here should not be corrupted.
In the United States, the vicious cycle of unlawful migration and heightened xenophobia has been going on for decades. It’s what led to Mr. Trump’s election in 2016, and if Democrats cannot propose reasonable alternatives on immigration, they will lose again. No amount of multicultural sloganeering will assuage Americans’ concerns that the system is broken.
Liberals will have to propose a workable path to citizenship for the roughly 20 million undocumented migrants in the United States. They will have to propose reforms to the ruthless immigration enforcement regime that puts children into cages. Immigration courts, understaffed and with large backlogs of pending cases, will have to be funded. And liberals must keep fighting every inch of Mr. Trump’s border wall.
At the same time, the left would be wise to reset this toxic debate by agreeing to focus on highly skilled immigrants. Every immigration policy is bound to penalize and offend some people while rewarding others. But reframing the conversation in terms of merit calls Mr. Trump’s bluff. It turns the immigration issue into an argument that liberals can win. It combines compassion with common sense, which is what Americans on both the left and the right want.
America is not just a country; it’s a world. What the United States has achieved as a continental, multiracial, constitutional democracy of around 330 million diverse citizens is unprecedented in world history. It is easy to forget just how recent — and how radical — this social experiment is, and how fragile it has become. Preserving the idea of America as a nation of immigrants requires more than just compassion. It requires persuasion.
Omer Aziz is the author of the forthcoming “Brown Boy: A Story of Race, Religion, and Inheritance.”
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