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    Saturday, September 21, 2019-3:14:56P.M.






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OPINION | Trump’s immigration progress

PRESIDENT Trump campaigned in 2016 as an immigration restrictionist, and most of the time he still is. But this week he made his largest move to date toward a more welcoming view of legal immigration, albeit with some unfortunate contradictions.

The reform outline Mr. Trump sketched Thursday is thin on detail, but the contours are an improvement on the Administration’s earlier plans. “Our proposal is pro-American, pro-immigrant, and pro-worker,” he declared. Acknowledging that these objectives don’t conflict is progress. The problem is that the President still seems to think that lower-skilled immigrants undercut American workers. There’s little evidence for that, and U.S. workers, taxpayers and businesses would benefit from more immigrants of all skill levels.

The outline’s centerpiece is a “merit” system similar to the Canadian and Australian models that award immigrants points based on age, education, employment and English proficiency. The share of immigrants admitted based on skill and employment would increase to 57 percent from 12 percent while the proportion granted green cards because of family ties would fall by half to 33 percent.

Current levels of legal migration would stay the same, which is notable since the Administration last year endorsed a 50 percent cut. Mr. Trump also wants to let more foreign students educated at American colleges stay to work. As Mr. Trump noted, U.S. companies are moving offices abroad because they can’t find or retain skilled workers.

But any point system is vulnerable to political meddling and will discriminate against less-educated strivers who also boost the U.S. economy. Merit systems don’t measure entrepreneurship and would keep out many less-skilled workers who start small businesses like the neighborhood dry cleaner. The plan also doesn’t increase or streamline guest-worker visas, which are crucial to reduce the incentive for illegal immigration.

A labor shortage is one reason Canada has added guest-worker visas for low-skilled occupations. Even Japan is admitting more guest workers for blue-collar jobs as a low birth rate threatens growth and living standards.

U.S. employers report 7.5 million job openings including 360,000 in construction, one million in leisure and hospitality, and 1.4 million in trade and transportation. As a real-estate guy, Mr. Trump has to know that hotels, warehouses and factories won’t be built, products won’t be transported, and stores won’t be stocked if jobs go unfilled.

Yet he’s still indulging in bad labor economics. “Newcomers compete for jobs against the most vulnerable Americans and put pressure on our social safety net and generous welfare programs,” he declared. But immigrants complement rather than replace American workers. The U.S. jobless rate is the lowest in 50 years, and wages are rising for the least skilled, even as the immigrant share of the workforce is higher than in at least 15 years.

By the way, the labor participation rate for foreign-born workers is higher than native workers at all education levels. Labor participation among Hispanic immigrants with a high-school degree (72.2 percent) is nearly 20 points higher than similarly educated native whites (53.8 percent) and about equal to those with bachelor’s degrees (72.7 percent).

Low-skilled immigrants are contributing heavily to the nation’s entitlement programs and sustaining Rust Belt communities that otherwise would be losing population. More immigration will be vital to maintaining the “safety net” as the U.S. fertility rate last year fell to a 32-year low.

Mr. Trump is bowing to labor groups who oppose increasing guest workers because they are harder to organize, and to restrictionists who want to reduce all immigration for cultural reasons. The President also made no nod to legalizing the 1.8 million or so young adults who were brought to the country illegally as children. Yet no immigration deal with Democrats is possible without some solution for those so-called Dreamers.

Then again, the new Trump outline is intended more as a campaign document than legislative proposal. Democrats don’t want to give Mr. Trump a victory on immigration before the election, and his restrictionist supporters don’t want a deal — period. The stalemate is likely to persist through the election, which is a shame for the Dreamers left in limbo and for employers who need more workers. At least Mr. Trump is acknowledging that America needs the world’s best talent, which could create an opening for compromise in 2021.