May 16, 2019

May 16, 2019

Our Already Meritorious Immigrants. According to numerous press accounts, President Trump is set to present a semi-new immigration policy in the next few days. It’s only semi-new because it still contains funding for Trump’s wall and makes no mention of the undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children, leaving them vulnerable to eventual deportation. 

What is new—supposedly the result of a compromise between the neo-fascism of White House Svengali Stephen Miller and the general doltishness of White House Son-in-Law Jared Kushner—is a proposal to base admission on “merit.” No more of that “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” business.

Ironically, even without the “merit” criterion, the actual pool of newly arrived immigrants is increasingly credentialed. A new study from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California reveals that in 2017 in California—home to more immigrants than any other state—the share of working-age immigrants who’d moved to the United States during the past five years with bachelor’s or graduate degrees was 52 percent. By contrast, the share of U.S.-born Californians with bachelor’s or graduate degrees in 2017 was 36 percent.   

Like the rest of the U.S., only more so, California has a two-tier economy, disproportionately employing higher-paid professionals on one end and low-paid service, retail, and construction workers on the other. Most of the immigrants with no advanced degrees end up in that low-end sector. It wouldn’t be so low-end if California hadn’t gone through two massive waves of deindustrialization in the 1980s and ‘90s, losing both its auto factories and then its aerospace plants, at the time the largest private-sector employers in the state. Those factories had just begun to provide an economic ladder to the new wave of immigrants when they were unceremoniously shuttered. Thus were meritorious immigrants ghettoized in meritorious but un-remunerative jobs, their “value,” as measured by income, called into question. 

All of which raises questions of their own. Among them: Why is Trump demonizing immigrants when so many of them, even by his administration’s own narrow criteria, pass the “merit” test. And who’s to say what’s really meritorious? If America still had the levels of economic and social mobility it had half-a-century ago, then poor immigrant, and native-born, parents would be raising children who’d grow up to surpass them economically, many of them becoming middle-class in the process. Moral and social merit, of course, has nothing to do with economic merit, but if we should narrow our definition to the one the Trumpians are using, then the shrinking of the middle class—for the native born no less than for immigrants—is the problem we need to address.