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Trump's chief of staff admits immigrants help the economy, amid U.S. immigration crackdown

This administration curtailed legal immigration in addition to its efforts against undocumented people. Now it bemoans that people don't want to move here.
Image: Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney listens in the Oval Office on March 19, 2019.
Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney in the Oval Office of the White House in March 2019.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

President Donald Trump's acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, told an audience at the Oxford Union in England last week that the United States was "desperate" for immigrants to "fuel economic growth."

But anyone with passing familiarity with the Trump administration's myriad immigration restrictions and crackdowns — let alone its ongoing anti-immigrant rhetoric — would be forgiven for questioning Mulvaney's sincerity ... or his self-awareness. Many problems in the American immigration system assuredly predate Trump's inauguration, but what was already functioning poorly in our immigration policy his administration has consistently made worse.

First, it is important to acknowledge that Mulvaney is correct: Reams of empirical evidence show that a liberal immigration policy aids American economic growth (and the evidence was there before Trump launched his presidential campaign with a broadside against immigration). The data are so clear that there isn't any significant debate about the point among reputable scholars — but immigration remains a divisive political issue, largely because of cultural fear and resentment.

As a candidate, Trump made counterproductive immigration policies the cornerstone of his campaign to take advantage of those divides; as president, he has followed through with implementation.

And although Mulvaney noted that the administration wanted immigrants to come fuel America's economic growth in "a legal fashion," the administration's record reflects not only heightened enforcement of immigration violations, but also breathtaking curtailments of immigration that had previously been legal. From the Muslim travel ban to family separation of asylum seekers at the U.S. border to the denial of visas to family members of people already legally in the country, the administration's actions prove that "we want legal immigrants" is nothing more than a rhetorical sham.

Mulvaney's comments, however, shouldn't be understood as a shift toward normalcy in administration policy going forward. Indeed, as Catherine Rampell noted in The Washington Post, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services told its employees that starting Monday, when judging the merits of an application for a green card — that is, permanent legal immigration status — the agency may judge the mere fact of applying against applicants because approval would make them eligible for public benefits. The guidance creates a real-life Catch-22: Even though data show that immigrants receive less public money per person than native-born Americans, their applications for legal status may be denied because of the benefits that status would confer upon them.

Furthermore, The New York Times reported that Mulvaney's remarks at Oxford also addressed the dissonance between his beliefs and administration policy. He said: "I disagree with the president every single day. ... You just don't hear about it — that's not my job." Mulvaney also noted the changed policy positions of Larry Kudlow, a television personality turned presidential economic adviser, who went from "being one of the foremost free traders in the country" to a stalwart defender the president's tariffs and trade wars. Mendacity appears to be a virtue in the president's inner circle.

Perhaps more unnerving than the economic backwardness and political dishonesty of Trump's immigration policies is the chaos those policies inflict upon immigrants and their loved ones. A recent ProPublica investigation (by my partner, Dara Lind) described how Border Patrol agents' virtually unfettered discretion split up a Honduran family seeking asylum from violence. By segregating the applicants by gender — men and boys in one line, women and girls in the other — intact families are split up and sent through the bureaucratic maze in different directions with no guarantee of reunification.

And despite Trump's repeated flattery of law enforcement officers, his immigration policies make their jobs harder. He recently ordered paramilitary Border Patrol units into several so-called sanctuary cities to make arrests of allegedly undocumented immigrants. Such raids will disrupt lives, break apart families and (the president hopes) score cheap political points.

But one of the most important intended benefits of sanctuary cities is immigrants' cooperation with law enforcement. Immigrants — documented and undocumented alike — are far less likely to come forward to cooperate with law enforcement and testify against wrongdoers if they or their loved ones could be deported after coming to the attention of the police. As a result, front-line police officers, municipal leaders and even judges have spoken out against federal actions that subvert local criminal justice. Undermining sanctuary city policy emboldens criminals and makes those cities less safe — yet another way the Trump administration's policies run directly counter to its stated objectives.

Legal immigration into the United States is falling, despite the hollow desperation of Mick Mulvaney, because of the policies he is helping enact. This decline shouldn't be a surprise to him. Rather than promote America as the "land of opportunity" or the "shining city on the hill," Trump has denigrated all immigrants, their native countries and their American-born children. His actions have ripped apart families, thrown our legal systems into disorder, destabilized our southern border with a friendly nation and all but abandoned the practice of welcoming refugees from disaster. Americans should feel a profound sense of shame in their government right now.

Mulvaney's comments about wanting immigrants would be laughable if he weren't complicit in an ongoing tragedy.