Immigration and the GOP Debate: How Many?

By Mark Krikorian on March 11, 2016

The Washington Times’ Stephen Dinan also took the radical step last night of asking the Republican candidates about the level of legal immigration. Over the previous 47,000 debates this season, this question – one of the most important faced by any country – has only come up once before. In January, Rubio was asked why he wanted to massively increase immigration; his panicked response was a fruit salad of non sequiturs.

The responses this time were only a little better.

Kasich was asked first, with Dinan saying Trump is “calling for a pause on green cards issued to foreign workers. Wouldn’t that help workers in the U.S.?” Before ignoring the question and talking about illegal immigration this is what he said:

KAISCH: Well look, I believe in immigration, but it has to be controlled. The simple fact of the matter is I wouldn’t be standing here. I’d be maybe running for president of Croatia if we didn’t have immigration.

(I can hear him now: “I know how to balance budgets – we’ve done it in Croatia!”) So, no answer from Kasich.

Dinan then asked Trump, “how long you think that pause would be and what that pause would look like.” After talking about H-1b visas, and the fired Disney workers’ endorsement of him, Trump said:

I think for a period of a year to two years we have to look back and we have to see, just to answer the second part of your question, where we are, where we stand, what’s going on. We have to sort of take a strong, good, hard look and come up with plans that work.

It’s not clear whether he was referring to a one- or two-year pause in H-1b visas or in overall legal immigration, which is what his published plan calls for (see the final paragraph). In any case, it was refreshing to see a candidate call for a pause in any part of the federal immigration program to allow for reassessment.

Cruz was next:

DINAN: The United States averages about a million new permanent legal immigrants a year and hundreds of thousands more guest workers. What should the right level be?

CRUZ: Well, we need to redefine our legal immigration system so that it meets the needs of the American economy. Right now, we’re bringing in far too many low-skilled workers. What that is doing is driving down the wages of hard-working Americans. Our system isn’t working.

And then he went on to talk about illegal immigration. The reference to the admission of “far too many low-skilled workers” is good to see, though that doesn’t necessarily translate into a reduction in overall immigration. Cruz’s published plan says only no increases: “Under no circumstances should legal immigration levels be adjusted upwards so long as work-force participation rates remain below historical averages.”

Rubio had clearly thought through his response ahead of time, seeking to avoid repeating the ridiculous display he made in January. He elaborated on the theme of changing the makeup of the immigration flow and was effective in acknowledging that his parents came in via family-based categories but that times change:

But today in the 21st Century, 60 years later, finding jobs when you don’t have skills is very difficult. We need to move to a merit- based system of immigration, not just on H-1B, particularly on green cards. The primary criteria for bringing someone from abroad in the 21st Century should be, what skills do you have? What business are you going to open? What investment are you going to make? What job are you going to be able to do when you arrive in the United States?

Of course, he too did not address Dinan’s question: How many? The one part of his Gang of Eight bill which Rubio has not even pretended to recant is its doubling of legal immigration to two million a year. (It also would not have shifted the flow away from nepotism to merit.)

So, on the central question of immigration policy – numbers – here’s the scorecard:

  • Kasich: No answer.
  • Trump: A pause, though it’s not clear a pause in the whole or just a part of the system.
  • Cruz: We take too many low-skilled workers, but no answer on the overall level.
  • Rubio: We take too many family members, but no answer on the overall level.

As incomplete as this might be, it remains the greatest level of skepticism about previously sacrosanct legal immigration that’s ever been expressed in a national forum. The Overton window is being pushed a little farther open.

Topics: Politics