3 Problems with Donald Trump’s Immigration Plan

Photo by Gage Skidmore

Yesterday, Donald Trump released his first policy white paper, unsurprisingly about the issue on which his campaign and his appeal to his supporters is most solidly based: immigration.

Brief, at times undetailed, and coming in at about 1800 words, it will not change the minds of his critics who charge that his positions have lacked specifics. At the same time, it is bold, controversial and seeks major change in every area his backers could have hoped for.

There are, however, at least three proposals that are unrealistic, unconservative, fiscally or economically irresponsible or some combination of the above.

  1. Make Mexico pay for the border wall

This first section of the plan echoes what might have been thought an off-hand debate remark by Trump, but here he doubles down on it. Mostly, this part of the paper counts the costs of illegal immigration – fiscal, economic and personal – but only briefly at the end offers a plan to actually force the Mexican government to pay for the wall.

This comes in the form of raising fees and costs on Mexicans coming to the United States:

  • Impound all remittance payments derived from illegal wages
  • Increase fees on all temporary visas issued to Mexican CEOs and diplomats (and if necessary cancel them)
  • Increase fees on all border crossing cards – of which we issue about 1 million to Mexican nationals each year (a major source of visa overstays);
  • Increase fees on all NAFTA worker visas from Mexico (another major source of overstays)
  • Increase fees at ports of entry to the United States from Mexico [Tariffs and foreign aid cuts are also options].

Notably, only one of these directly impacts illegal immigrants. Only one other actually impacts Mexican government officials – here, diplomats. His final idea will impact the Mexican economy, but only at the cost of impacting the American economy as well. (It is not the last idea Trump has to raise costs for American consumers.)

If we assume for a moment that the Mexican government cares about increased costs for migrant workers – something it seems safe to doubt – there are still three unanswered questions: 1) can Trump get all of the increases passed in Congress, 2) can they actually be raised significantly enough, and 3) how much will Mexico actually feel the hit economically?

Color me skeptical that this will make Mexico enthusiastic about picking up the tab for our border security.

Another problem with this part of Trump’s plan: he is correct that both NAFTA workers with visas and those who cross the border legally with cards who overstay make up a large number of the immigrants here illegally – in fact about 40%.

But while Trump wants to crack down on overstays by increasing the penalties on those who do it, his increases in fees fall on those who are coming here legally in the first place. His plan, then, is to disincentivize Mexican workers and others from obtaining the legal right to come here (and possibly to work) by raising the costs of doing so in order to bring down the number of illegal immigrants here in the long run.

It doesn’t take a degree in economics to realize that this will simply make it more attractive for potential Mexican migrants to eschew the legal process and come here illegally if they are desperate for work. In other words, Trump’s plan is to decrease illegal immigration by means that will also increase it.

  1. Ending birthright citizenship

Here it seems that Trump wants to amend the Constitution. The 14th Amendment, passed in 1868, enshrined what was largely practice in the United States from the time of the framers: those born within the territory of the United States are considered to be citizens.

The relevant clause reads:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.”

If Trump simply wants to end birthright citizenship outright, he would be departing from hundreds of years of precedent that allowed children born to people here legally who were not yet obtained citizenship to be citizens themselves by matter of birth, granting those children many of the opportunities their parents hoped to make available to them legally.

(The Federalist’s Ben Domenech lists a number of great Americans whose right to citizenship Trump would be calling into question.)

Certainly one can argue that “and subject to the jurisdiction thereof” implies that birthright citizenship does not extend automatically to everyone born in the United States. This still requires legislation specifying that children of illegal immigrants don’t count – good luck with that, Donald – and a Supreme Court that upholds it.

Perhaps Trump does intend to pass legislation saying that only children born within U.S. borders to people here illegally will no longer receive birthright citizenship. He doesn’t say so. It might be possible to overlook that detail if it were be proposed in an op-ed. Unacceptably, he fails to make the distinction in his own white paper – albeit a short and vague white paper.

Even Mark Krikorian of the very conservative Center for Immigration Studies believes “ending birthright citizenship would only be possible along with amnesty for those undocumented immigrants already in the country so that their children would be citizens,” according to The Washington Post.

The story goes on to explain that “otherwise…he would be worried about the unauthorized population—unable to work and without any legal connection to their native country.”

  1. Increase prevailing wage for H-1Bs

H-1Bs are essentially work visas for foreign workers with specialized skills. By raising the minimum wage that can be paid H-1Bs, Trump is hoping to attract American citizens with specialized skills to the jobs H-1B workers would otherwise take for lower wages.

Apparently, Trump is fine with minimum wage controls as long as they shut out Mexicans and other foreign workers. Economic laws will still be in effect, of course, so prices will still go up for American consumers. (We already saw that Trump is okay with this outcome.)

On top of this, he wants to institute a “hire Americans first” requirement. This is no different economically from unions, whose entire purpose is to keep other people from competing for jobs in order to protect their own. Again, economic laws tell us this promotes inefficiency and raises prices. This is a time when the American middle class can’t afford it.

Again, these are crackdowns on foreigners here legally. It is not an attempt to discourage law-breaking. The only difference between his proposals and the minimum wage laws and unions that almost all conservatives recognize are too prevalent is the people who are shut out – even though they broke no laws.

Trump is successful businessman and he understands basic economics. It is clear that he is proposing nonsense policies because it is what some want to hear. What America really needs is a free market.

There are good and important policies in the Trump plan, such as the mandatory deportation of illegal immigrants who committed crimes here, as well as stiffer penalties for those who overstay their legal visas.

What America doesn’t need is a president whose immigration policy is overrun with anti-free-market protectionism and who stokes undue fear about people who come to this country legally, like most of our ancestors did.