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ICYMI: Ron Brownstein on the (Mostly Overlooked) Radicalism of Trump’s Approach to Legal Immigration

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Ron Brownstein, one of the most insightful journalists covering immigration policy and politics, has a new must-read column on Donald Trump’s radicalism on legal immigration. Brownstein, who writes for The Atlantic/National Journal, makes the case that while Trump’s nativism towards undocumented immigrants is rightfully generating attention and outrage, Trump’s extremism also extends to his policy proposals for legal immigration.

Brownstein highlights that Trump’s proposed dramatic slowdown of legal immigration has parallels to nativist proposals from the early 1920s; marshals evidence to show that Trump’s legal immigration policies would dramatically slow down U.S. economic growth; and makes the case that Trump’s legal immigration policies could alienate growing parts of the electorate, such as Asian-Americans, writing, “Republicans may want to consider that history as Trump bugles them toward another crusade to restrict another generation of new Americans.”

Brownstein’s new column, “The 30 Million Immigrants Trump Would Turn Away,” is available online here and is excerpted below:

“…Though largely overshadowed by his hard-edged proposals on undocumented immigrants, Trump proposed the most significant restriction on legal immigration since Congress slashed it after World War I. Projections by the non-partisan Pew Research Center suggest that, compared to current law, Trump’s plan would reduce legal immigration through 2065 by tens of millions. “The actual number of people who might not come to the United States would be at least 30 million, possibly more,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, Pew’s director of Hispanic research.

Such a reduction, or anything like it, would have huge implications for population and workforce growth; the solvency of Social Security and Medicare; and the Republican Party’s future. Many Republican strategists fear that Trump’s fulminations against undocumented immigrants could alienate Hispanics from the party as lastingly as Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act did African Americans. A parallel campaign to squeeze legal immigration could also repel Asian Americans, who Pew projects will be the largest group of lawful migrants in coming years.

…Reducing legal immigration would mostly reduce “the younger part of the population.”

A smaller workforce would particularly slow the economy’s future expansion. As the Baby Boomers retire, it would also intensify financial pressure on Social Security and Medicare by diminishing the number of working-age adults paying taxes to support each retiree. Reducing legal immigration would mostly reduce “the younger part of the population,” said the Brookings Institution demographer William Frey. “And if you take that out you are making the population older, the elderly dependence ratio higher, and reducing the labor force’s productivity.”

The U.S. has never explicitly linked immigration levels to the foreign-born population share, as Trump proposed. But the idea draws on the national-origin quotas Congress approved in 1921 and 1924. Recoiling against a wave of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe led by Slavs, Italians, and Jews, those laws slashed overall admissions and linked future immigrant flows to each country’s U.S. population share in 1890—when most immigrants came from “Nordic” Northern and Western European countries. Those laws, which also extended earlier bans on Asian migration, severely curtailed legal immigration until 1965—when Congress passed landmark legislation that reopened the doors.

In the 1920s, as today, economic, security, and above all racial anxieties converged to power the drive against legal immigration; drawing on rising unease over foreign influences following World War I, immigration opponents marshaled “an increasingly assertive racial nativism,” as historian John Higham wrote. And just as now, the immigration restrictions adopted then reinforced a broader global retreat: President Warren Harding, who signed the 1921 immigration limits, also pursued protectionism on trade and finally interred Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations. Perhaps not coincidentally, in the 1920 campaign, Harding described his platform as “America First.”

The coda to the 1920s nativist upsurge came when Franklin Roosevelt realigned American politics in 1932. The GOP-led Jazz Era drive against legal immigration helped Roosevelt (despite his own caution on the issue) cement the growing immigrant groups clustered in the nation’s largest cities into his New Deal coalition that dominated American politics for nearly four decades. Republicans may want to consider that history as Trump bugles them toward another crusade to restrict another generation of new Americans.”