Will Trump's Controversial Immigration Plan Actually Make Any Real Difference?

Yesterday a commenter named Oddstar expressed the view that I had "missed the point completely" on the subject of the Trump candidacy.  According to Oddstar, the main focus of Trump's candidacy is not, as I had argued, seeking to transform our government by supposedly replacing incompetence with managerial competency, but rather is seeking to have the government push back against immigration to avoid having demographic transformation spell "the end of the Republican Party and the conservative movement."  I responded to Oddstar in the comments, but I thought that the subject deserved the treatment of a full post.

I admit that I don't understand what inspires the voters who say that they back Trump.  It's entirely possible that a perception that immigration is out of control and transforming the country for the worse is the biggest factor in their inspiration.  The problem I have is that even Trump's proposals, as radical as some of them sound, do not really envision major change to the fundamental aspects of our immigration regime that are bringing about the ongoing transformation (and that have continuously transformed our country since its founding).  Trump's immigration proposals would offend lots of people, foreign and domestic, for not much noticeable change even over several decades.

Here is a link to Trump's "Immigration Reform" plan.  The majority of it deals with the issue of illegal immigration from or through Mexico.   He's going to "build a wall" and "make Mexico pay for the wall."  He's going to step up immigration enforcement and make it really, really strict.  Interestingly, there is no reference in this plan of Trump's oft-mentioned proposal for a "pause" in immigration from Muslim countries.  Possibly, he came up with that one some time after this plan was posted last fall.  The subject of legal immigration does come up, but is discussed in vague terms.  He's going to require employers to "hire American workers first," and increase "prevailing wages" for immigrants under the H1B visa program.  But there's nothing on any specific lowering of legal immigration quotas or on how many legal immigrants Trump thinks should be allowed into the country in a year.  Certainly, he does not propose eliminating legal immigration.

Trump's proposals do not really deal with the big numbers in immigration that drive the ongoing demographic transformation of the country, and instead deal with what are essentially side issues.  Consider the subject of illegal immigration from Mexico.  I have long thought that most to all Mexicans who might potentially come to the U.S. were already here.  After all, there are only about 120 million Mexicans, and the segment of the population most likely to emigrate -- poor but ambitious young men aged about 20-35 -- is only a small slice of that.  Many segments of the Mexican population are proportionately far less likely to emigrate (for example, those with successful careers in Mexico, women and children) and some large groups are not likely to emigrate at all (for example, those over 50).   The 5 to 6 million Mexicans already here illegally are really a very large part of the segment of the Mexican population that might potentially seek entry here.  

And sure enough, when you look into the statistics, you find that illegal immigration from Mexico has been net negative since 2007!  That is, for eight years now, more illegal Mexicans have left the U.S. each year than have arrived.  Here is research from Pew that shows that the number of illegal Mexicans in the U.S. peaked at approximately 6.9 million in 2007, and had fallen to approximately 5.6 million by 2014.  Of course the tremendous irony here is that making it impossible to get back in may slow the outmigration of illegals and cause the number here to remain higher than it otherwise would.  But let's not trouble Mr. Trump with such complexities.  And, by the way, the Pew research also shows that illegal immigration from the rest of the world (which in the aggregate adds up to about the same amount as the illegal immigration from Mexico) has also been net negative since 2007.

Trump's proposal for a "pause" in Muslim immigration deals with relatively tiny numbers in the overall picture.  According to data compiled by Breitbart here, the number of immigrants from Muslim countries obtaining permanent resident status in 2013 was about 123,000; another about 40,000 obtained refugee or asylum status.  

But what are the big numbers in the immigration arena that are currently driving the demographic transformation?  Primarily two things: (1) Legal immigrants, and (2) children (and grandchildren and great-grandchildren) of illegal immigrants already here.  Legal immigrants currently arrive at a rate of around one million per year, and over time that adds up a lot -- the total number of legal immigrants living in the country is estimated by Wikipedia at 37 million.  (Trump uses a figure of 42 million -- close enough.)  Children of illegal immigrants under current practice receive what is called "birthright citizenship" under the 14th Amendment.  There is a controversy over whether that is a constitutional right versus something that can be changed in a statute by Congress, and I won't attempt to resolve that controversy here.  But Wikipedia here has an estimate that there are approximately 4.5 million children of illegals in the country today who have the "birthright citizenship" status, with about 300,000 per year added to the total.

So what does Trump propose to do about these big numbers?  To start with, he has no proposal at all to lower the million per year of legal immigrants, at least no quantitative proposal.  On the birthright citizenship issue, he does take the position that a statute could do away with it.  OK, but, assuming that the courts went along with that, would Trump and a Congress really try to take the citizenship away from the 4.5 million who think they already have it (as opposed to only making a prospective change going forward)?  And how about the as-yet-unborn children (and grandchildren, etc., etc.) of those 4.5 million -- would anyone really take the position that they don't have citizenship status?

In summary, with illegal immigration net negative for years now, and no real prospect for another big wave of illegals coming from Mexico, there are only really two places where the ongoing demographic change of the country through immigration can be materially altered, namely by change to legal immigration quotas and by change to birthright citizenship rules.  And either of those, if implemented today, would only proceed to effect change very slowly over many years.  The legal immigration piece is by far the bigger of the two.

Now, how do we feel about the number of about one million per year for legal immigration to this country.  Even most people in the conservative and libertarian movements support some substantial level of legal immigration, if not precisely that number.  Here is a comment by Noah Rothman from the magazine Commentary from last August:

Trump’s “plan” is an assault on not merely the illegal immigrants who have violated American laws, but those who have played by the existing rules to come to the United States. The proposal amounts to a declaration of war on America’s immigrant community, an attack on the foundational nature of America’s character as a melting pot for all the peoples of the world, and the inception of a police state that is incompatible with a free republican democracy.

So, Mr. Trump, do you propose lowering the million per year, and if so to what?  Half a million?  Ten thousand?  Obviously, this is a subject on which he does not want to be pinned down.

By the way, there are things in Trump's plan that even I can get behind.  Exhibit A:  he proposes that immigrants be permanently ineligible for welfare and handout programs.  Amen to that.  That level of foolishness is what gets us people like the Tsarnaevs.  The funny thing is that people who are ineligible for welfare, and therefore work because they have to, tend to end up grateful, while those who take handouts tend to end up resentful and angry.  It seems counterintuitive, but there is plenty of evidence to support it.

Anyway, the idea that Trump's proposals as to immigration are going to fundamentally alter demographic transformation of the country just looks to me to be wrong, and not a reason to support Trump.