Gerson: Trump's demonization of immigrants marks GOP as source of intolerance

Michael Gerson
Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON — This is the strangest of political moments, in which a historically weak president believes he is acting from a position of strength.

After a year in office, Donald Trump has an approval rating below 40 percent — the lowest for any president in modern times. In the special state legislative elections held so far this year, Democrats have outperformed Hillary Clinton's presidential results by an average of 23 points — presaging a disastrous Republican midterm election.

And yet, Trump and his supporters feel they are riding a wave of momentum. The president has claimed victory in his shutdown showdown with Democrats. In the conservative media bubble, he is declared a leader of rare courage and achievement — a judgment with which the president is inclined to agree. And a confident Trump seems to be toughening up his demands in the brewing legislative fight over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — the program allowing some young people who entered the country illegally as minors (the "Dreamers") to legally stay.

We don't know what a final deal on DACA might look like — though it would certainly involve some legal status for the Dreamers in exchange of some version of the southern border wall. Trump is holding a popular group (more than 70 percent of Americans support allowing the Dreamers to stay) as legislative hostages in order to put a highly unpopular policy (less than 40 percent of Americans support building the wall) into place. Normally, this would be a poor negotiating position. But Republican control of the House and Senate matters. No deal on DACA will pass the House without Trump's blessing. His apparently random interventions in policy debates — based on something he just saw on morning television, or heard from the last person in the room — should make for an interesting legislative process.

But Trump supporters are also showing their hand on the broader immigration debate. The Securing America's Future Act in the House and RAISE Act in the Senate — both proposed by immigration hard-liners and endorsed by Trump — reveal the ultimate goal of restrictionists: dramatic reductions in legal immigration. The House bill would reduce the number of legal immigrants by 38 percent in 2019, the Senate bill by 43 percent. These would be the most severe reductions in legal immigration since the 1920s.

The theory? America needs more skilled immigrants (in Trump's view, from places like Norway) and fewer immigrants overall. The bills would eliminate the diversity green card lottery, dramatically restrict family sponsorship and put in place a point system that gives an advantage to more accomplished and educated applicants.

The public case for this type of immigration overhaul concerns economics. It would, supporters argue, protect American workers from job competition and increase wages for the working class.

This is bad economics in every respect. It is wrong that new immigrants are generally in job competition with the native born; they are often in competition with more recent immigrants, who hold the kind of jobs that better fit their skills and background. There is little good evidence that acts of massive restriction in the past — the deportation of some 500,000 Mexicans during the early years of the Great Depression or the end of the bracero program in the 1960s — resulted in better job prospects or higher wages for native-born workers.

This is counterintuitive, but completely rational. Immigrants are not just workers, they are consumers at stores and restaurants. A grape or almond picker helps create value and job opportunities up the whole chain of processing and distribution to the grocery store — and helps keep the price of food low for other consumers. Large numbers of migrants can put strains on public services.

But it is both terrible economics and terrible morality to regard human beings as leeches and economic drains. In a capitalist system, humans are ultimately the source of all creativity, productivity and wealth. And because of slowing birth rates and lower work participation rates, America is depending on immigrants at every skill level — from agricultural workers to nurses to engineers — to create economic growth, pay for and care for retiring baby boomers, and maintain our global standing.

By every economic measure, America needs more immigrants. But passions on this issue have less to do with economic theory than with fear of cultural change — the reason that Trump demonizes migrants as rapists, murderers and terrorists. In this way, a president — sure of his instincts and flattered by his courtiers — marks his party as a source of intolerance.