The Border Catastrophe Shouldn’t Overshadow the Question of Legal Immigration Levels

By Mark Krikorian on December 5, 2023

National Review, December 5, 2023

At tomorrow night’s GOP primary debate in Alabama, immigration will undoubtedly come up. The border is still a disaster, as the Biden administration scheme to “legally” admit through ports of entry hundreds of thousands of people with no right to enter the U.S. isn’t cutting into the number jumping the border, which was the White House justification for it.

In fact, the area around Lukeville, Ariz., has become the latest epicenter of the border crisis, as thousands drawn by Biden’s catch-and-release policies are crossing through holes cut in the fence and waiting around for their Border Patrol rides.

(There’s an election angle specifically to remote Lukeville. The border crossing there has been shut down because Customs and Border Protection is all Lucy-in-the-chocolate-factory trying to deal with the illegal tsunami. This matters for Biden’s prospects in the swing state of Arizona because the Lukeville port of entry is the only practical way for voters from Phoenix to get to their condos on Mexico’s Gulf of California — a closed border-crossing means no beach vacation.)

So illegal immigration and the border will obviously be mentioned in the debate. But that won’t necessarily be very illuminating, because all the Republican candidates are opposed to Biden’s border policies and support many of the same policies.

But what about legal immigration? After all, the whole point to enforcement is to make sure that our limits and procedures for legal immigration are honored.

The issue of overall immigration, most of it legal, was highlighted last week by Census Bureau data that showed the U.S. now has the largest foreign-born share of its population in history. My colleagues Steven Camarota and Karen Zeigler report that the nearly 50 million immigrants (legal and illegal) in the country as of October represent 15 percent of the total population, exceeding previous highs back during the Great Wave. And there’s no end in sight; if the current trend continues, the share could reach an unheard-of 17.3 percent by the end of a second Biden term.

The foreign-born share of the population broke the 15 percent mark a decade earlier than Census Bureau projections because of Biden’s La Invitacion to prospective illegals around the world. But even without the current border mess, the foreign-born share would have broken the record soon enough because we admit a million or so legal immigrants each year, essentially on autopilot.

What do the Republican presidential hopefuls think about this? Maybe one of the journalists moderating the debate will ask tomorrow, but we can glean some insight from public comments the candidates have already made.

Ron DeSantis has repeatedly rejected the usual GOP mantra of “legal good-illegal bad” — i.e., that mass immigration is fine so long as it’s not illegal. For instance, at the National Conservatism conference last fall, he said:

And this idea of mass immigration, whether it’s illegal immigration or whether it’s just mass immigration through the legal process, like the diversity lottery or chain migration, is not conducive to assimilating people into American society.

More recently, Newsweek reported this in November:

“We talk a lot about illegal immigration,” DeSantis said at the event this month. “But no one really talks about the legal immigration system and there’s some Republicans that say, ‘As long as it’s legal, it doesn’t matter.’ I don’t subscribe to that.”

Nikki Haley has a very different take on the issue. At a recent campaign event in New Hampshire, she said the following:

For too long, Republican and Democrat presidents dealt with immigration based on a quota. We’ll take X number this year, we’ll take X number next year, the debate is on the number. It’s the wrong way to look at it. We need to do it based on merit. We need to go to our industries and say ‘What do you need that you don’t have?’ So think agriculture, think tourism, think tech, we want the talent that’s going to make us better. Then you bring people in that can fill those needs.

Simply put, Haley is saying that immigration should be unlimited by law, with the number determined by the preferences of employers, not the needs of the broader society. This is pure “willing worker/willing employer” stuff from George W. Bush in 2004.

What about Trump? As usual, he’s all over the map. Legal immigration did, indeed, decline during his term, for a variety of reasons, and the White House backed legislation in the House that would have reduced legal numbers. (It came close to passage but was sabotaged by Speaker Paul Ryan.)

On the other hand, in the year before Covid hit, when the economy was cooking with gas, Trump repeatedly said we should increase immigration to provide workers to business. In his 2019 SOTU address, he said, “I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.”

When asked later about this by a reporter, he made clear that he meant it: “Yes, because we need people in our country because our unemployment numbers are so low.”

A year later, Mick Mulvaney, his chief of staff du jour, made the same point at a private gathering in England: “We are desperate — desperate — for more people. ... We need more immigrants.”

None of this should have been a surprise. During his first campaign, Trump said he wanted increased admissions of guest workers, and early in his term, he told The Economist that he wanted continued mass immigration.

An issue of such import ought to be the subject of more debate than it has been up to now. That’s understandable given the magnitude of the cataclysm at the border. But maybe after asking about that, someone will think to ask the candidates if they think the total level of immigration should be raised or lowered.