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Immigration Reform: Disparate Ideas, Disparate Futures

If Donald Trump were to win the presidency and carry out his strident promise to build an impregnable wall along the border with Mexico, both advocates and foes agree, it would turn the United States into a nation quite different from the one they live in.

They don’t know the half of it: Under Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant proposals, the American population would probably shrink to 323 million by 2024, about one million fewer people than today and 22 million fewer people than the Census Bureau’s projections for eight years from now.

There is another side to the story, too: With Hillary Clinton as the next president, the population of the United States is more likely to increase to 360 million in 2024, from 324 million today.

Of course, these disparate futures, estimated by Joseph Chamie, a demographer who once headed the United Nations Population Division, rely on a few assumptions. Mr. Trump would expel 11 million immigrants who are illegally in the country; Mrs. Clinton would legalize them. Future migration in a Trumpian America would fall to zero but would rise if Mrs. Clinton were president, as many newly legalized residents brought their families along.

The gap — 37 million people, more than a tenth of the population — underscores how powerfully immigration policy will shape the future of the United States. And it highlights the shortcoming of a decades-old political debate over overhauling the nation’s immigration system that has failed to take into account the disconnect between policy makers and the American public.

“One of the main demographic effects would likely be on overall population size,” said Michael S. Teitelbaum, who in the 1990s was vice chairman and acting chairman of the United States Commission on International Migration. “Another major effect would be on demographic composition in terms of national origin, language, education, religion, race/ethnicity, etc.”

Nobody disputes that America’s immigration system is broken. The law governing immigration is pretty much irrelevant to the reality of immigration on the ground. But we can’t just patch the system.

Attempts at reform have focused on cobbling together constituencies that would stand to gain from specific changes: businesses eager to acquire cheap workers; labor unions interested in organizing newly legalized foreigners; advocacy groups out to protect the rights of immigrants who are toiling with little recourse to law.

One problem with this approach is that it has bypassed American voters.

Most Americans would rather not allow more immigrants into the United States. Many would prefer fewer. In 2010, three out of four said they favored tighter restrictions on immigration.

This doesn’t mean the United States should pull up the drawbridge, as Mr. Trump proposes. But it does suggest that any effort to change immigration laws and practices faces a big democratic challenge.

Mr. Trump’s immigration strategy has little contact with reality. Even under the most favorable circumstances its costs would exceed its potential benefits. According to some immigration experts, his vaunted border wall could even increase the number of immigrants living and working illegally in the United States. Unless Mr. Trump were also prepared to impose a police state that would hunt down and deport every foreigner, immigrants facing a higher cost of entry — higher smugglers’ fees, greater odds of dying on the way — would be more likely to stay once they got in.

“What the U.S. government is doing in terms of border enforcement, mass deportations and other restrictive policies just isn’t relevant to the decision to stay home,” noted the Mexican Migration Field Research and Training Program of the University of California, San Diego, which has interviewed thousands of immigrants and potential immigrants in communities across Mexico.

Wayne A. Cornelius, who heads the effort, concluded that “border enforcement, in whatever form and at whatever level, has never been a cost-effective deterrent.”

If Mr. Trump were able to cut immigration to zero, it would have other consequences. The United States would have not just a smaller population in the future but also an older one. The work force, which powers economic growth, would be smaller. Each worker would have to maintain more retirees.

But Mr. Trump is not the only politician misleading the public about immigration.

For decades, the political debate over immigration has been mired in implausible possibilities. Notably, even reformers on the pro-immigration side still peddle the notion that illegal immigration could be stopped after the latest batch of unauthorized immigrants obtained legal residence.

This proposition doesn’t mesh with an ineffectual enforcement policy and a border that, to most voters, looks like Swiss cheese. What it does is squander voters’ trust. “What trips this up is that politicians are continuously making claims which turn out not to be true,” Mr. Chamie, the demographer, told me.

The runaway popularity of Mr. Trump’s extreme anti-immigrant stance among a large bloc of the electorate tells you just how mistrustful voters have become over the prevarications of the political class.

In 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law an immigration bill that abolished national quotas favoring migrants from Western European countries, he told Americans that it would “not affect the lives of millions,” nor “reshape the structure of our daily lives.”

Two decades later, President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which offered amnesty to several million unauthorized immigrants but promised to slam the door on future illegal immigrants by holding their employers accountable.

Lots of things happened over the last few decades. What’s certain is that immigration did not follow the pattern envisaged by President Reagan. Nor did its impact on the makeup of the United States fit the modesty of President Johnson’s prognostication.

Immigrants, their children and grandchildren have accounted for 55 percent of the country’s population growth since 1965, according to the Pew Research Center. Then, the country was 84 percent white, 4 percent Hispanic and less than 1 percent Asian. Today it is 62 percent white, 18 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian. Unauthorized immigrants, brought close to zero after the legalization wave of the 1980s, are back at an estimated 11 million.

Immigration brings many positive things, including diversity of experience and talent, new ideas, customs and skills. The National Academy of Sciences this week will release a report that the immigration surge to the United States from 1990 to 2010 produced net benefits for the native-born, beyond those accruing to the immigrants themselves, of $50 billion a year, a small but nontrivial amount. It is bigger than the economic gains expected from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations now stalled in Congress.

But admitting new immigrants carries costs, too, like pressure on land, housing and natural resources, and lower wages for workers with scant education who compete directly with immigrants in the labor market. It might be a bad idea to craft policy around Americans’ misgivings about ethnic and cultural change. Still, they should be brought into the conversation.

Any effort at durable immigration reform must acknowledge that expelling 11 million people and having them wait in some nonexistent line to return legally would not just be inhumane but also impossible. The effort must come to terms with the fact that the United States economy benefits from workers of many different backgrounds. It must accept that stopping illegal immigration from the poorer regions of the world will require offering a legal avenue for entry.

Reform cannot simply deal with things like border controls and requiring employers to verify legal status. Education — both of immigrants and the American-born — will be critical to nurture bonds of identity.

Reformers must engage with Americans’ fears, while offering those who suffer economic losses the means to overcome their loss. Reform efforts will not succeed if they fail to bring Americans along.



Miami immigration lawyers who represent clients in all areas of immigration law, including deportation defense, employment-based cases, family-based residency, and much more.

We offer a free in-office consultation with Antonio G. Revilla III. Mr. Revilla is a Former U.S. Immigration Prosecutor and a Miami immigration attorney with 25 years of legal experience. He is known throughout the legal community for representing clients in even the most difficult and seemingly hopeless cases. With his invaluable experience as a former prosecutor, Mr. Revilla understands the intricacies of the immigration court system and how to effectively navigate the complicated process.

Mr. Revilla will fight for your right to remain in the United States with an aggressive but diplomatic approach to your case. During your free in-office consultation, Mr. Revilla will take the time to thoroughly review your case and provide his honest and professional guidance on the best way to proceed.

Contact Revilla Law Firm, P.A., today to schedule your free in-office consultation.

Call (305) 858-2323 or toll free (877) 854-2323

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