During the presidential campaign, when Donald Trump recited his favorite riff: "Build the wall," I would always advise him, "Make sure that wall has big gates for immigrants to enter legally."
Over the next few weeks, Congress has some big decisions to make on immigration, and this comes at a time when both parties seem to be leaning in the wrong direction.
Democrats are, well, for lack of a better word, stonewalling on building the wall. They say it's an ineffective way to stop illegal crossings, and they may be right. But they miss the point. For millions of Americans the wall is seen as the fulfillment of a promise: Washington will take border security seriously for the first time in decades.
On some of their stances, they risk the possibility that voters will think they care more about undocumented immigrants than American workers. That's not a winning position with voters.
Some Democrats also are in favor of allowing immigrants to get broad use of public benefits -- food stamps, public housing, free college tuition, Medicaid and the like (although undocumented immigrants currently aren't able to qualify for welfare or food stamps).
For 200 years, immigrants have been coming to the United States -without receiving welfare. In fact they could be denied entry if the immigration officials believed they would become a "public charge." Wave after wave of the foreign born have done magnificently well by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.
Many Republicans are also making a mistaken plea to reduce not just illegal immigration but also to lower the number of legal immigrant visas.
Why? Almost every economic analysis finds that legal immigrants are net contributors to the economy. Not all immigrants are beneficial, and sure there are bad apples in the bunch. But the benefits of immigration are surprisingly large -- mostly because most immigrants are risk-takers who come to the United States between the ages of 16 and 40 -- so they tend to be at the start of their working years or at the peak of their earning years.
The net benefits to American citizens in terms of growing the economy and paying taxes is in the trillions of dollars over the next 30 to 40 years when you include Social Security payments. So if the GOP wants to be a growth party, it must be a pro-immigration party. Period.
Within the conservative movement, alas, there is a new neo-Malthusian strain of people who believe we have to worry about exploding population growth and limited resources. Ridiculous. US birth rates just hit a 30-year low, and without immigration we would have negative population growth and we'd soon look like aging Japan. Immigration is America's fountain of youth.
My view is that with the graying of the population and the low birth rates, we should allow about 1.5 million legal immigrants into the United States each year (we are now at about 1 million per year). We should change the selection process to a merit-based policy along the lines of what Trump has endorsed and that has been adopted in Canada and Australia.
Immediate family members, children and spouses would still go to the front of the line.
This would ensure that we get the best, brightest and hardest-working -- regardless of race, ethnicity or nation of origin. If we did so, we would never in this century have to worry about China overtaking the United States as a world superpower. We would import all their brainiacs as well as the most talented and skilled from the countries with which we compete.
Most importantly, there should be no welfare benefits for immigrants until they become citizens. That's the deal. To the immigrants we say: We will give you the greatest asset in the world -- a US passport allowing you to share in our freedoms and our wonderland of opportunity -- but you can't live on the dole. You and your sponsors are responsible for your well-being.
With entitlement spending exploding, and trillions of dollars of future deficits in these programs, we can't afford to allow foreigners to come to America to collect our generous benefits. -We now have fairly strong evidence that welfare has the same debilitating dependency effects on -immigrants as it does on the native born -- it saps them of their economic drive, which is the very attribute that makes immigrants such valuable assets in the first place.
To recap: We need to build the wall to signal the importance of border security. We need to allow more, not fewer legal immigrants. We need to shift toward a system that admits those with special skills and talents. And we need to disqualify legal immigrants from expensive welfare programs so that they do not become a cost to American citizens.
To get such a deal done, Democrats have to get tougher on illegal immigrants, and Republicans have to allow more visas each year. There's a win-win for immigrants and the American economy here if Congress can just put partisan politics aside for a week or two and do what's right for the country.