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.
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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.