Trump should overhaul US immigration, but without the bias
Robert Delaney says the Trump administration’s proposal to set much stricter limits on who can enter the US plays on fears about job losses and rising crime that just aren’t borne out by facts
Not all of my ancestors spoke English when they arrived at Ellis Island from Italy about a century ago. They were stone masons and tailors, and probably wouldn’t have made the cut under the immigration proposal unveiled last week by the administration of US President Donald Trump.
My great-grandparents arrived in the US with their children at a time when many Americans of Anglo-Saxon descent were pounding their fists over the incoming waves of immigrants from Italy. These new arrivals were defined by their darker complexions, allegiance to the Vatican and a predilection among some of them for organised crime.
They went to Catholic mass, of course, but they also bought into the American dream. My Italian grandfather joined the US Navy during the second world war, and then ran a small house-painting business, often employing other labourers. My grandmother worked in retail, then moved to a career in newspaper ad sales and, in retirement, volunteered to help counsel US Vietnam war veterans struggling with mental trauma.
Stephen Miller, the acidic senior White House adviser famous for his declaration that the actions of Trump “will not be questioned”, disingenuously referenced Canada and Australia in defending an immigration policy proposal based on academic achievement and English-language skills, among other factors.
The Canadian press promptly weighed in, pointing out how off-base Miller was.
For one thing, Canada – with just above one-tenth of the population of the US – takes in about 250,000 immigrants per year, representing a much higher proportion than the 1 million accepted by the US.
And while Canada has a merit-based immigration policy that prioritises fluency in one of the country’s two official languages, it also accepts five to 10 times more refugees per capita than the US. Very few of these immigrants from war-torn regions speak English or French proficiently.
There’s a reason hardliners don’t cite data showing how much of a drag immigration puts on the economy or the net number of jobs Americans lose to new immigrants. There is no data to support their position.
Instead, they can only highlight anecdotes. They profile the grieving mother of someone killed by an “illegal” or the recidivism of a recent immigrant who wound up in jail. And they won’t say how often the crimes are perpetrated by illegal or recent immigrants relative to the general population because that would undermine their argument.
Even the right-leaning Wall Street Journal wrote in a 2015 commentary that “newcomers to the US are less likely than the native population to commit violent crimes or be incarcerated”.
Which brings me back to my Italian grandparents.
Fortunately, the majority of Americans of preferred ancestry resisted efforts by many to demonise Italians, Irish, Jews, and all of the other “others”. Perhaps the reluctance to close America’s borders derived from a spirit of shared humanity. Perhaps it was the understanding that immigrants supported the growth and greatness of their country. Maybe both.
The US immigration system could use an overhaul, and not all of Trump’s proposals are daft.
We should hope, though, that clear-thinking Americans prevail as the debate plays out.
Robert Delaney is a US correspondent for the Post based in New York