Donald Trump’s immigration speech generated intense speculation about whether he would soften his hard line on illegal immigration, but instead, the real change came with his unexpected, full-throated advocacy of a long-term cutback on legal immigrants.
Trump had previously flirted with the idea of cutting legal immigration, but Wednesday’s speech in Phoenix marked his first public embrace of the full restrictionist position.
Trump broke sharply from the Republican Party’s long-standing positions and adopted the most openly nativist platform of any major party presidential candidate in decades.
If Trump is elected, the shift he advocates would greatly reduce immigration overall and move the U.S. from an immigration philosophy of allowing strivers from around the world to take advantage of American opportunities to one focused on bringing in people who already have money and job skills.
This kind of emphasis on dealing with legal immigration in this way is not something a major nominee has done in the last 60 years.
That viewpoint is deeply divisive within the GOP — another example of the stress that Trump’s campaign has put on the party.
“This kind of emphasis on dealing with legal immigration in this way is not something a major nominee has done in the last 60 years,” said Roy Beck, the head of Numbers USA, a Virginia-based group that advocates immigration restrictions and helped lead opposition to a bipartisan immigration overhaul in 2013. “It was great.”
Until now, most Republicans have said their party opposes only illegal immigration, not the authorized variety.
“What part of illegal don’t you understand?” has been a frequent slogan, along with repeated praise for immigrant entrepreneurs.
Trump’s speech fundamentally shifted that ground.
The model, he said, should be what the U.S. did after “previous immigration waves” — a reference to the restrictionist legislation passed under President Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s that remained in place until 1965.
The goal should be “to keep immigration levels, measured by population share, within historic norms,” he said. Groups that call for a return to “historic norms” often point to the 1960s and 1970s, when the foreign-born share of the U.S. population fell to about one out of every 20 people, rather than one in eight as it is today.
Trump’s call was a major victory for advocates of immigration restriction, led by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), an influential advisor who traveled to Mexico and Phoenix with Trump on Wednesday and whose former staff members have shaped Trump’s positions.
Sessions has long fought to cut overall immigration levels, arguing that high rates of immigration depress wages for American workers. But until Trump’s rise, he had largely been shut out of the party’s policymaking.
The U.S. admits about 1 million legal immigrants a year, and the foreign-born share of the population is now at the highest point since the early 1920s.
Getting back anywhere close to the levels of the ’60s and ’70s would require cutting immigration to a trickle and keeping it restricted for decades. Congress would have to pass new laws for that to happen, although a President Trump could take some steps to reduce legal immigration using his own authority, noted Doris Meissner, former immigration commissioner.
A legislative push would likely set off an enormous battle that could dominate the first year of a new administration.
Sessions and his allies have called, for example, for ending the visa lottery that allows about 50,000 people a year to immigrate and has been a major way for people to come to the U.S. from Africa and Asia. Advocates for greater restrictions have also called for eliminating legal provisions that allow naturalized citizens to bring their parents and adult siblings to the U.S.
In addition to the cuts in legal immigration, Trump pledged to build a wall along the border with Mexico, aggressively step up efforts to detain and deport immigrants convicted of crimes, complete a long-planned effort to accurately track entry and exit visas, greatly expand the size of the Border Patrol and the immigration service and cut off federal money to cities and other local governments that fail to cooperate with federal enforcement efforts.
Those moves would come with a hefty price tag. Most of those steps would cost $40 billion or more over five years, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated. That doesn’t include the cost of the wall, which Trump has said would cost $8 billion, but which outside groups have said could be triple that price.
Trump did not spell out the full implications of what he was calling for, but they would be vast.
Under his plan, the U.S. would move away from the current immigration system, which emphasizes family unification, and allocate fewer visas, basing them on a person’s ability to contribute to the U.S. economy.
Business groups allied with the GOP, such as the Chamber of Commerce, as well as the high-tech industry have also called for giving out more visas to people with high economic potential, but they’ve generally advocated doing that in addition to family unification, rather than in place of it.
The 2013 immigration bill that passed the Senate but died in the House, for example, would have generated a surge of at least 50% in the overall number of immigrants let into the U.S. legally because it would have kept most family unification visas while expanding the number for high-tech workers, among others.
Because the overall numbers would be lower under Trump’s plan, “we would be an older, increasingly whiter” country and “one that’s not going to be able to be supported as well,” said William Frey, a leading demographer based at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“The only way we’re going to have continued growth in our younger population and our labor force is continued immigration” to offset the aging of the nation’s native-born white population, Frey said.
During the 1960s and 1970s, when the foreign-born population was at its lowest point, the U.S. economy benefited from the baby boom generation moving into jobs, noted Audrey Singer, an immigration and labor force expert at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank.
“Now, we’re in a period when that same group is exiting the labor market,” she said. “We don’t have the kind of cushion anymore” that the country once had to maintain a strong economy without high levels of immigration.
“If you look at the growing, vibrant areas of the country,” she added, “they all have high numbers of immigrants.”
Along with economic growth, however, immigrants also bring social change, which many Americans, particularly older whites, find disconcerting.
In a survey this year that asked whether immigrants today mostly “strengthen the country through their hard work and talents” or mostly “burden the country by taking jobs, housing and healthcare,” Americans by about a 2-1 margin said immigrants were a source of U.S. strength, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
Trump supporters, however, were notably different. About 7 in 10 voters who backed backed Trump during the primaries took the negative view of immigrants, Pew found. Those who backed other GOP candidates were more closely split.
Overall, pro-immigrant sentiment has been on the rise for the last decade, particularly among Democrats and members of the millennial generation, Pew’s polls have found.
Restrictionist policies have been unpopular with most political candidates; Trump’s backing of them has drawn cheers from longtime advocates.
“It was probably the best immigration speech any major party’s political candidate has delivered,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based group that advocates for lower immigration levels. “What he said was more than any other candidate has ever said.”
“I’m not sure how much he means or how much he will follow through on,” Krikorian added. “But that’s true of any politician on any subject. You have to take them at their word and see what they do.”
Times staff writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.
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