Trump's immigration plan endangers America's ability to integrate foreigners

It's family reunification, not highly skilled workers, that allows the U.S. to form a cohesive national identity.
Image: Miyoung Lee holds her son, Nate, as they take part in a United States naturalization ceremony at the New York Public Library on July 2, 2014.
Miyoung Lee holds her son, Nate, as they take part in a United States naturalization ceremony at the New York Public Library on July 2, 2014.Andrew Burton / Getty Images file
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By Julia Brookins, special projects coordinator at the American Historical Association

President Donald Trump’s Rose Garden speech on immigration Thursday proposed an eye-catching but ultimately short-sighted approach to immigration: the notion that we should strongly favor highly educated, highly skilled visa-seekers over those with family ties to people in the United States.

As a historian of U.S. immigration, I have seen such notions floated many times over the years because they promise to improve the economy by recruiting better talent. But the politicians and policymakers who promote them don’t seem to notice or appreciate how central prioritizing family-based migration has been to our phenomenal, long-term success in integrating foreigners into the fabric of American life.

Are we setting ourselves up to host a set of people who see themselves as global winners, looking to negotiate the best residency deal for themselves without emotional connections to us or intellectual regard for our ideals?

When declarations about America’s “broken” immigration system ring out from all political quarters, we should take stock of what is not broken within the system, and resolve not to break it. I’m resigned to the fact that most policymakers’ measures of success focus on narrowly defined economic needs and less on the full range of costs and benefits large-scale immigration has for the country. But I still hope that someone, somewhere is concerned about the needs of our democratic republic and wants to perpetuate the best ideas that have sustained it for nearly 250 years.

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So what are Trump and those who oppose family-based immigration missing? They are overlooking two critical ways that giving visas to relatives of immigrants facilitates integration: the practical work involved, and the support it provides for our civic life. Coming to the country via family connections is not unfair or crooked, as some of those who oppose the practice today claim. It is an essential element of one of America’s greatest achievements, creating a coherent, multicultural national identity.

To start with, these opponents ignore the enormity of the task of ensuring immigrants become full members of a new society. We expect people to arrive from somewhere else in the world, become American, have children who grow up as Americans, and possess loyalty, common civic values and a sense of shared identity. This is a dimension of immigration in which the United States probably has the world’s strongest track record. But practically speaking, how does that actually happen?

One of the key reasons is family networks, which beget community networks.

Family ties currently form the explicit basis of most legal immigration to this country. Visas for spouses, children, parents and siblings of those already in the country make up 66 percent of residency visas, or green cards. And that makes sense. I found in my research — on the integration of Germans who immigrated from Europe to Texas from the 1840s onward — that new arrivals reflexively relied on family first and foremost, even as they established an impressive set of educational, religious and social institutions to support them while they built their communities in the Lone Star state.

Indeed, throughout U.S. history, families and extended family networks have offered intense social, cultural and financial help to new immigrants. They assist newcomers in finding housing and jobs, as well as translating important information, such as tax, DMV and school registration forms. Many also provide emotional and psychological support and communicate U.S. cultural norms throughout the adjustment process.

Indeed, throughout U.S. history, families and extended family networks have offered intense social, cultural and financial help to new immigrants.

In contrast, a skills-based immigration policy would not provide this support system. While formal and informal social and voluntary organizations, including religious ones, would continue to do very important work, they would never make up for what we would lose through family networks. Some countries spend considerable amounts on such services, like Germany, but are often more famous for their lack of integration than for significant payoff from these programs.

Beyond the practical question of who will do this work (and who will pay for it), there is the deeper question of what this new framework would mean for membership in our society. Are we setting ourselves up to host a set of people who see themselves as global winners, looking to negotiate the best residency deal for themselves without emotional connections to us or intellectual regard for our ideals? I am not confident that the civics exam Trump proposed will resolve the problem.

The traditional image of the American immigrant is someone whose main qualities are ambition, the desire to work hard and a willingness to sacrifice so the next generation will succeed as Americans. These strivers don’t need an advanced degree or a white-collar disposition to achieve that dream; in fact, it is often class exclusion and the dearth of educational access in their countries of origin that propel them to build a new life. And it is in some ways their very lack of opportunity and privilege that dedicates them to making sure their children are full members of American society so their heirs can succeed — whether through professional achievement or political freedom — in ways their old countries didn’t allow. Merit and privilege are not the same.

Primarily rewarding the educated and well-off with green cards reduces to a form of economic transaction our process of converting foreigners into citizens. It is not designed to cultivate the sense of belonging and motivation for civic learning and participation that would support our form of government into the future. Don’t we want something more from a new American?

I do want new immigrants to possess a particular set of skills: I want them to understand how this country’s complicated past shapes its present, to participate actively in their government as citizens who not only exercise their rights but also fight to protect the rights of others, and — most importantly for me — to believe in America’s civic ideals of equality and liberty for all people. Faith in these ideas — interpreted in different ways by different people — is how we’ve come this far as a country. Today’s proposals risk taking us down an altogether foreign path.