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The False Choice Behind Legal Immigration

A nation that treats family visas as a sentimental luxury will lose talent to countries that are smart enough to have more sensible immigration policies.

The Trump administration would have you believe that, in shaping legal immigration policy, we have to choose between a sentimental view of our history as a nation of immigrants on the one hand, and the hard reality of our economic needs on the other. Don't fall for it. This seems to be little more than an attempt to start a debate about the "quality" of the legal immigration stream, while also proposing, as we saw recently, drastic cuts in the numbers of legal immigrants by clamping down on the ability of relatives of both American citizens and legal residents to come into the country. The administration has, in one fell swoop, essentially opted to harm American families and, in turn, undercut the very economic growth the nation hungers for, all while disrespecting the forebears who may not have learned English until they got here, but still contributed mightily to making us the nation we are.

The administration's rhetoric around this proposal conveniently forgets that our legal immigration system provides visas only to those who are sponsored by someone in the United States, either a close family member or an employer who has met a host of requirements to hire someone highly skilled. There's no legal immigration category for low-skilled workers; the industries that rely on them, like agriculture, use one of several programs that provide temporary non-immigrant visas to workers who are expected to leave after the terms of their visa expire.

Our legal immigration system is, in other words, already very limited, and very much designed to serve the interests of Americans by reuniting us with our closest family members or by allowing businesses to hire or transfer a limited number of specifically chosen workers from abroad. The reduction in visas that the administration proposes would come at the expense of Americans who seek to reunite with their closest family members; its proposal means asking Americans to wait to reunite with spouses, children, and parents—if they're able to reunite at all. To suggest that we cut family immigration in the service of bringing "quality" immigrants who serve our economic needs misses the fact that family immigrants are also valuable workers themselves. A nation that treats family visas as a sentimental luxury will lose talent to countries that are smart enough to have more sensible immigration policies. The "quality" immigrants this administration would allow into the country aren't just skilled workers—they have families too.

The administration has it right that legal immigration reform is overdue. The problem, however, is that it has the wrong proposal. Former President George H.W. Bush, who signed the last immigration reform into law, reminded us that, as a nation of immigrants, we've done well with a system that honors our family values while also advancing our economic needs. It's well established that increasing immigration is a pathway to economic growth. My former colleagues on former President Barack Obama's Council of Economic Advisers made a clear case that growing immigration is among the fastest ways to grow the economy. An excellent analysis by Moody's Analytics for ProPublica furthers the argument, estimating that "for every 1-percent increase in U.S. population made up of immigrants, [gross domestic product] rises 1.15 percent." The interactive chart that accompanies the report is an eye-opener, and it highlights the irony of promising a path to 4 percent growth while also proposing to decimate a major way of getting there.

When the Senate last attempted immigration reform in 2013, it addressed the question of legal immigration, along with its more visible efforts at border security and addressing the population of undocumented immigrants. They established that there's bipartisan support for thoughtful reforms to the legal immigration system, support that builds on our nation's history, our family values, and our desire to continue to lead the world economically. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office also found that our country would reap enormous benefits as a result, including deficit reduction and economic growth.

The Senate didn't force a choice between America's families and its economic needs—because that dilemma simply doesn't exist. Likewise, don't let the Trump administration fool you into thinking that we need to choose.

This story originally appeared in New America's digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.