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Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.
Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.

MARGARET WENTE

America’s spectacular immigration mess Add to ...

America’s opinion-leaders are horrified at the prospect of Donald Trump’s deportation “surge.” He says his first priority is public safety. But the criminals and gang-bangers won’t be the only ones caught up in his net. The immigration crackdown will also target tens or hundreds of thousands of hard-working souls – maids, dishwashers, construction workers – who could be torn from their families, held in detention centres, and eventually deported back to impoverished villages across Mexico and Central America. Their only crime – apart from being in the country illegally – is doing the dirty work for pay that Americans won’t accept.

How ugly will it get? That’s anybody’s guess. Practically speaking, there’s not enough money, manpower or public appetite to enforce deportation on a massive scale. The public isn’t ready for images of American-born babies ripped from their mothers’ arms. An immigration crackdown would also disrupt large parts of the economy.

But many of those who anguish about the crackdown have no one to blame but themselves. Immigration policy hasn’t been enforced for years. The number of undocumented immigrants in the United States now stands at around 11 million. (How would you feel if Canada had a million or more illegal immigrants who could receive education, health care and welfare benefits?) Republicans and Democrats alike have been both unwilling and unable to control the country’s borders. The consequences have been borne by ordinary people, not them. When the ruling classes so miserably fail to do their jobs, what you get is Mr. Trump.

America’s mainstream media project an idealized view of immigration as an enduring cornerstone of U.S. greatness. To them, the present will be exactly like the past. Immigrants are portrayed as hard-working strivers whose kids overcome incredible hardships, join the mainstream and go to Harvard.

Some of this is true. But there’s another side. Unchecked illegal immigration has also brought a massive influx of poorly educated, unskilled workers who rely on costly social services and do not exhibit the economic mobility of earlier immigrant waves.

Harvard’s George Borjas (himself an immigrant from Cuba) is an immigration myth-buster. He argues that the economic costs and benefits of modern immigration are largely a wash. But the costs and benefits aren’t evenly distributed. In its current form, American immigration results in a tremendous transfer of wealth from the poorest people in the country to the richest.

The main beneficiaries of current immigration policy are affluent professionals – who now enjoy an entire servant class of nannies and gardeners – along with businesses that can employ meat-packers and other unskilled labourers at rock-bottom wages. The hardest hit are unskilled native-born Americans who’ve suffered wage declines, job displacement and de-unionization. These people are disproportionately African-American, and many have simply left the job market.

California is a case study in the changes wrought by low-skilled immigration. In the 1970s, the population was largely white. Today, the public-school population is 54-per-cent Hispanic and 24-per-cent white. (Asian-Americans and African-Americans are the next-biggest groups.) Many immigrants don’t bother to learn English because they don’t have to. Hispanic educational achievement is low. California has some top schools, but its education system over all is now among the worst. California has become a highly stratified society, with Silicon Valley workers at the top and migrant labourers a long, long way below.

The standard narrative is that immigrants create wealth. The Trump narrative is that they are a drain on wealth – and many Americans agree. Government statistics compiled by Mr. Borjas show that more than 40 per cent of non-citizen immigrant households depend on cash, food stamps or Medicaid. (The figure is 24 per cent for U.S.-born families.) Legal immigration policy is messed up, too. It isn’t skills-based, as it is in Canada. It’s mainly family-based, which means that the best and brightest often don’t get in. None of this seems like a good fit for the high-skills workplace of the future.

Obviously, there’s no quick fix for problems that have been made infinitely worse by elite negligence. Americans need to decide how to deal with all those illegals. (Even hardliners agree that mass deportation is not an option.) They need to restore control over who gets in. And they need a legal immigration system that’s a lot more like Canada’s. All this, against a background of nativist resentment, xenophobia and racism whipped up by a populist demagogue. And perhaps the worst part is that they brought it on themselves.

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