How the Trump Administration Could, Actually, Put America First

How the Trump Administration Could, Actually, Put America First
Nate Guidry/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP

In his inauguration speech, President Trump promised that “every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” Unfortunately, he hasn’t followed through.

Rather than putting American families first, President Trump has claimed responsibility for a surge in ICE enforcement actions and issued a series of executive orders that have unnecessarily banned travelers from seven Muslim nations as well as directed the construction of a southern border wall. The president is reportedly mulling over executive orders regarding H1-B visas and a revised travel ban. In short, he has prioritized pet issues instead of the needs of Americans who have voiced their disproval through multi-city protestslawsuits, and opinion polls.

If Mr. Trump seriously wants to put “America first,” he should start by considering that immigration is a net positive for America, which generates economic benefits, increases rates of entrepreneurship, and improves the standards of living for American citizens. Even critics of contemporary immigration policies, such as Harvard Economist George Borjas, acknowledge that immigrants raise the real income of natives by 0.2 percent, generating annual economic surpluses for natives of $28.7 billion measured in 2016 USD. For Mr. Trump, a businessman, the appeal of such economic benefits should be immediately apparent.

Before issuing another order, Mr. Trump should confront the aspects of our haphazardly built immigration system that could have real negative effects on some American citizens, including welfare usage, illegal immigration, and adverse wage effects. Attending to the complex ways in which immigration impacts the American economy could help the Trump administration craft effective policy, rather than relying on blunt instruments such as border walls.

If the administration is worried that immigrants are too dependent on welfare programs, for example, it could endorse legislation that would restrict federal funds, as the Clinton administration did. Or if Mr. Trump decides that the minimal downward pressure immigrants put on low-skilled workers’ wages is too great, he could transfer a portion of immigrants’ earnings to the aggrieved party. Or if Mr. Trump is determined to reduce illegal immigration, he could signal his support for a self-funded guest worker program that would monitor the entry and exit of guest workers. The administration could even find funding for Trump’s wall by charging would-be illegal immigrants, who often pay thousands of dollars to smugglers, for temporary work visas, thereby offering a legal pathway to entry.

Putting America first means recognizing that any adverse aspects of immigration should be remedied with institutional changes that would leave the U.S. with greater economic benefits. By contrast, building a wall would only increase taxes for American citizens while denying some of the benefits of continued immigration.

As harsh as some of these proposals may sound to staunch immigration supporters, immigrants would still be better off than if their entry were curtailed completely. Immigrants experience huge wage gains, by as high as a factor of 13, upon migrating to the United States. These gains are not generated by stealing American jobs, but, rather, by the nature of U.S. institutions, which utilize immigrants’ skills, direct their labor, and channel their efforts into value creating endeavors better than those of their origin countries. 

Immigration isn’t a zero-sum game; both American citizens and immigrants can be made better off. Get rich quick schemes and minute makeovers may make for great reality TV. But they don’t make for sound policy — for that we need careful, evidence-based analysis.

Andrew M. Baxter is a current graduate student at George Mason University. He is also a former Policy and Research Analyst at the Charles Koch Institute. 

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