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Opinion: If more high-skilled immigration has to come at the expensive of family-based immigration, is it worth it?

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If you like your opinions in black and white, this column isn’t for you.

I have mixed sentiments about the proposal to increase high-skilled legal immigration at the expense of family-based admissions. But perhaps some will find value in the crosscurrents of my thoughts and my misgivings.

We need more high-skilled immigrants

There’s little argument to be had that increasing high-skilled immigration wouldn’t be good for the country. High-skilled workers and entrepreneurs create opportunities for the rest of us. And they contribute more in taxes than they consume in public services.

In fact, there’s no real reason to put a cap on the number of high-skilled immigrants admitted. But there is a cap, a really restrictive one.

There are only about 120,000 green cards a year set aside for high-skilled workers. And their spouses and minor children count against the cap, so it is effectively much lower.

So, the country should be far more welcoming to high-skilled immigrants.

But what about low-skilled workers? And does the increase in high-skilled green cards have to come from a reduction in family-based ones?

No real shortage of low-skilled workers

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The U.S. could benefit from allowing more high skilled immigrants. But at what cost? Columnist Robert Robb walks us through the pros and cons. Brian Snyder, Arizona Republic

When Donald Trump says that low-skilled immigrants compete with native-born workers for jobs, he is essentially correct.

The business community bleats incessantly about a shortage of low-skilled workers and wants a large guest worker program to fill it.

But if there is a true shortage of something, the price of it goes up. And until recently, low-skilled wages were stagnant or declining. That’s an indication of a surplus, not a shortage.

Nor is it true, except arguably for agriculture, that immigrants, legal and illegal, take jobs that Americans won’t do. In any non-farm field heavily populated by immigrants, a majority of workers are still native-born.

Nor should we allow it to become true. We need an ethic that people should provide for themselves. The notion that some jobs are beneath fulfilling that responsibility is a corrosive one.

So, there is scant evidence that the country’s economy needs more low-skilled workers. Now that the wages of low-skilled workers are finally getting a boost, it would be a particular disservice to be importing more of them. And low-skilled workers tend to consume more in public services than they contribute in taxes.

In reality, there is little official legal importation of low-skilled laborers. The influx has mostly occurred illegally. And it could be sharply curtailed through a requirement that all employers use E-Verify, a federal system to electronically confirm work eligibility.

There are limits on family-based immigration

But some of it does come in legally through family-based immigration.

Although most legal immigration to the United States is family-based, it is not the gusher critics often depict.

There are no limits on the ability of a U.S. citizen to procure a green card for a spouse, minor children and parents. But for everything else, there are caps and often long wait lists to get in.

There’s even a cap on the ability of green-card holders to bring in spouses and minor children. For many countries, there are long wait lists for adult children and siblings.

Not all family-based immigration is low-skilled. And, obviously, it is theoretically possible to increase high-skilled immigration without curtailing family-based immigration.

But there is political sensitivity about the overall amount of legal immigration permitted.

The U.S. admits a bit more than a million legal immigrants a year. Trump proposes to keep the total at that number by increasing high-skilled admittees and limiting family-based sponsorships. Immigration restrictionists criticized him for not actually reducing the amount of legal immigration the country absorbs annually.

Is the trade-off worth it?

Let’s assume that the art of the politically possible requires such an exchange. Should we do it?

The country needs more high-skilled immigrants. But does what’s best for our economy trump what’s best for the immigrant families who legally moved here?

Moreover, being a place where people with little can come and make a future for themselves and their families is an intrinsic part of what this country has always been about. It’s an important part of what makes this country different. It’s why there are more than 20 million applicants a year for just 50,000 diversity lottery visas, which are also on the chopping block.

In a modern state, the strains of immigration, particularly low-skilled immigration, are real and politically knotty. But how much of our heritage do we want to give up in an attempt to relieve them?

Reach Robb at robert.robb@arizonarepublic.com.

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