Thursday, November 9, 2017

Some Thoughts on President Trump's Call for Immigration Reform in the Wake of the NYC Terror Attack


During the 2016 presidential campaign and later as President, Donald Trump called for building a wall between the United States and Mexico, issued three travel bans on immigrants from predominantly Muslim nations, ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for young undocumented immigrants, and embraced aggressive immigration enforcement.  It can be no surprise that, after the tragic events in New York City last week involving an immigrant from Uzbekistan, President Trump wasted no time in blaming the immigration system.  Unfortunately, he has misstated the facts and made constructive immigration reform less, not more, likely.

Trump said on Twitter that the driver in the New York attack "came into our country through what is called the `Diversity Visa Lottery Program,' a Chuck Schumer" — a reference to the Senate's Democratic leader.  He also tweeted: "We are fighting hard for Merit Based immigration, no more Democrat Lottery Systems. We must get MUCH tougher (and smarter)."

In endorsing “merit”-based immigration, Trump was alluding to the Reform American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act co-sponsored by Senators Tom Cotton (R-Ark) and David Perdue (R-Ga), which would dramatically reduce the number of family visas, eliminate the diversity visa program, and adopt a point system favoring educated, skilled, and well-heeled noncitizens who speak English.  The Act would reduce legal immigration by one-half, from roughly one million to 500,000 annually.  (Click here for critical analysis of the RAISE Act.).

There is room for debate about whether the diversity visa program, which today favors the immigration from countries that send relatively few immigrants to the United States, is sound policy and whether a “merit”-based or some other system would be preferable.  At the same time, there is no evidence that immigrants who come lawfully to the United States on diversity visas pose a serious security risk. Consider the facts.

Created by the Immigration Act of 1990, the diversity visa program accounts for a relatively small number of visas issued annually.  The program allocates 50,000 visas a year through a lottery; this is out of a total of approximately one million immigrants who come lawfully to the United States each year.  There is no evidence that any more than one in 50,000 diversity visa recipients who came to the United States the same year as the New York terrorist.

In addition, there are much easier and certain ways for a noncitizen seeking to do harm to enter the United States.  Diversity visas are allocated by lottery; would-be terrorists therefore cannot be certain of obtaining a visa when they apply but literally must win the lottery.  No other visas, including tourist, business, and student, are allocated by lottery.  Consequently, issuance of all other visas are more certain and predictable than diversity visas are.

In laying blame on the events in New York on the nation’s immigration system, President Trump also suggested that immigrants admitted on diversity visas were not carefully vetted.  But all visa applicants, including diversity visa applicants, are subject to the standard vetting and checks by (1) State Department consular officers in obtaining a visa and (2) U.S. border officers when they enter the country.  Any suggestion to the contrary is just plain misleading.  Indeed, in the case of the New York City driver, the evidence suggests that he was radicalized through watching extremist videos while living in the United States.  No amount of vetting at the time of his admission to the United States would have made a difference.

A majority of Americans believe that the current immigration system needs reform.   The United States needs a rational discussion on how to reform the immigration laws in a way that benefits the country and lives up to our highest ideals.  Pointing fingers and laying blame to try to scare the nation into reform of the laws in ways that do not address real problems will not move the nation forward.


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