Getting Immigration Right This Time

In setting immigration numbers, remember the Mustang and the Edsel

By Andrew R. Arthur on May 22, 2019

The great William F. Buckley once said: "Truth is a demure lady, much too ladylike to knock you on the head and drag you to her cave. She is there, but the people must want her and seek her out." It is important to remember WFB's wisdom as the White House fleshes out President Trump's latest proposal to reform America's legal immigration system, and plug the loopholes at the border. This is especially true as the administration determines how many new immigrants the United States actually needs on an annual basis.

What the president has announced thus far is more a framework, rather than a proposal, and there are many reasons that the White House may have chosen this particular timing. Reforming a system that was, quite frankly, imperfect when it was announced 54 years ago is not an easy task, particularly given the fact that the law has been amended, by my count, 145 times since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

Some of those amendments have been major, some of them minor, some were small tweaks to fix minor problems, some were major changes to address national crises, some were positive, some were negative, and some of them were so self-righteous and shortsighted that they helped create the disaster the border that we see today. It is doubtful that any of them were malicious, and likely all were passed with the best of intentions. As it relates to immigration, as we have seen, however, what seems like a good idea in the abstract has extremely negative impacts in the concrete.

It is possible that the White House decided to start with a framework because it wants to get the maximum amount of input from differing sides before legislation is actually rolled out. There is broad precedent in our society for such decisions. There are (at least) two parties to any contract, each with its own agenda, and each generally has to compromise before they produce a document each decides is worth signing. In court, there are two parties who are generally diametrically opposed to one another, and the idea is that this produces the best record for the judge to rule on.

This will especially be true in crafting legislation that goes to the core of what America is and will be. What the president is proposing is not a renovation, but a tear-down, for those fans of HGTV. The need for this action is apparent from the weak response that the president's opponents have offered. For example, as The Hill reported on May 16, 2019:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) slammed the White House's immigration plan ahead of its rollout on Thursday, arguing its focus on basing immigration decisions on "merit" was "condescending."

"It is really a condescending word. They're saying family is without merit?," Pelosi said at her weekly press conference.

"Weak sauce" is the term used by certain Capitol Hill staffers to refer to such arguments. For a much less earthy and significantly more substantive analysis of the speaker's response, I would refer you to the exceptional exegesis of this banal statement by my colleague, Jerry Kammer. Suffice it to say that every person on earth is your cousin. The definition of "family" for immigration purposes has to stop somewhere.

If you're going to go with a tear-down, it is imperative that to replace what you had before with something much better. This is as true (if not more so) in the immigration arena than it is as relates to a split-level rancher in a second-ring suburb. Provisions of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act have led us to the current immigration crisis, where 11-million plus illegal aliens reside in the United States, and more than a half century has passed without substantive, necessary amendments to address those flaws.

Importantly, as my colleague Mark Krikorian has noted, the president's plan "does not even call for a modest reduction in total immigration, but instead offsets decreases with increases in 'skills-based' immigration." According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, some 1,127,167 foreign nationals became lawful permanent residents (LPRs) in FY 2017, the last year for which statistics are available. This is more people than live in seven of the United States. The most populous of those states is Rhode Island, which has two Members of Congress. Over a decade (the period between each census), that means that enough people immigrate to garner 20 representatives.

Is that the right level of immigration? Good question. Adam Brandon, president and CEO of FreedomWorks thinks this is too few immigrants:

Congress needs to fundamentally rethink immigration to respond to the needs of Americans today, with an eye toward tomorrow. This starts by recognizing that the United States faces long-term labor shortages. Just this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the births in the United States have fallen to the lowest point in more than 30 years.

This is a crisis, and we must begin striving toward solutions. This is evident in even today's labor market. CBS News, for example, recently noted that "[t]here are now about 1 million more open jobs than unemployed workers." The United States needs workers, and we need them now. Sure, the economy faces challenges, but we essentially have a "hiring" sign on our front window.

An aging workforce and lower birthrates should be a concern. Fewer workers mean lower productivity. Lower productivity means less economic output. Less economic output means a nation in decline.

Fewer workers mean lower productivity? Only in the absence of technological innovation, and necessity is the mother of invention. In 1880, farmers were 49 percent of the labor force, in 1980 farmers were 3.4 percent of the labor force, and in 1990 they were 2.6 percent. The difference? Start with Jethro Tull (the inventor, not the band), and end with Monsanto (or Bayer).

And, recent reports suggest that there are skilled American workers who still need good-paying jobs. NBC News reported on May 20, 2019, for example:

Ford workers were informed by letter Monday that 500 salaried workers are getting laid off and will have to clean out their desks by the end of the week.

And that's just the first of a wave of layoffs in the U.S. that is expected to hit 800 by the end of June and 7,000 worldwide by the end of August, Ford CEO Jim Hackett said in a letter to all employees.

Bearing the subject line "Smart Redesign Update," Hackett wrote that the cuts will reduce the management ranks by 20 percent and result in annual savings to the company of $600 million.

The "Smart Redesign" must be cold comfort to those 20 percent in "management ranks" being "reduced."

Ford is not alone. CNBC reported in February 2019 that "General Motors [was] planning to layoff at least 4,000 salaried workers in North America." And on May 6, 2019, the Chicago Tribune reported that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles had laid off 1,403 workers at just one Jeep plant in Belvidere, Illinois. Another Tribune article on the layoffs included the following:

"I'm scared," said Mike Dovey, 57, of Poplar Grove, whose two years at the plant end Saturday. "There's a lot of uncertainty. You don't have a job, you've still got to pay all your bills."

Dovey was among the 1,371 least-tenured union workers at the plant who received notice from Fiat Chrysler in February that the third crew — and their jobs — would be eliminated in May. In addition, hundreds of employees at nearby suppliers like Syncreon and Android have been permanently laid off as well, according to state filings.

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Dovey, a Boston transplant who has "put down roots" in Illinois in a home he owns with his wife, said the outlook for Belvidere and the plant appeared bleak on the eve of his layoff, worrying aloud about the future of Fiat Chrysler itself.

But more than anything, he pondered a question for which he had no answer:

"I'm 57. How employable am I going to be after this?"

Maybe he could see if FreedomWorks is hiring.

The White House is correct that we need an immigration system that serves the American people (and lawful permanent residents), and their interests. It has an opportunity to clean up a system that is in need of a fix with the 146th immigration bill in 30 years. In the course of that process, President Trump should reevaluate whether 1,127,167 new immigrants are needed by the United States economy each year. He could start by asking the workers in the auto industry.

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act is not the only landmark that bears that date. The 1965 Mustang set a new standard for American muscle cars. If you ever have the chance to drive one, do so.

The Henry Ford explains how the concept for the Mustang came about:

Lee Iacocca made no small plans. He joined Ford Motor Company's sales department at 22 and resolved to be a vice president by 35. Technically, he failed to meet his goal; Iacocca wasn't named Vice President and General Manager of the Ford division until November 1960, a few weeks after he turned 36. . . .

Iacocca brought a needed shot of vigor to the Blue Oval in the early 1960s. . . . In 1960, Ford's best-seller was the compact Falcon. It was a solid car, but no one would mistake it for exciting. Iacocca, a salesman at heart, sensed almost limitless customer potential in the baby boomers, then entering their teens on the push to adulthood. If only Ford had a car for them.

So, he and a small team designed one. It continues:

The Mustang's roll-out was masterful. Ads ran in 2,600 newspapers across the United States. Primetime commercials ran on all three networks the night before the launch. The car, alongside Lee Iacocca, simultaneously appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek. Some 22,000 sales were tallied before the first weekend was over. Within a year, 418,812 Mustangs were sold. By the end of the model year, in the fall of 1965, almost 681,000 cars found their way into owners' garages.

Ford was not always so lucky in its development decisions. Consider the Edsel. A decade of research and $250 million had gone into the development of the car by the time it debuted. But: "The flaw in all the research was that by 1957, when Edsel appeared, the bloom was gone from the medium-priced field, and a new boom was starting in the compact field, an area the Edsel research had overlooked completely."

The lesson: plan for today and tomorrow, not yesterday. Let's hope that the Immigration Act of 2019 (or 2020), which has the promise of being a Mustang, does not end up like the Edsel. To avoid that predicament, planning is key.