One of the unresolved tensions of Donald Trump’s primary campaign was his posture toward legal immigration.
In his campaign policy paper, Trump took a hardline position, calling for “a pause” in all legal immigration. But in public Trump rarely discussed that idea. Instead, he usually softened his grim warnings about undocumented, or illegal, immigration by praising the legal kind: “I want people coming into our country, but they have to come in legally.” Trump was never pressed to entirely reconcile those vague welcomes with his specific call to suspend all legal immigration.
If nothing else, Trump’s long-awaited Arizona speech last week clarified this contradiction. Though largely overshadowed by his hard-edged proposals on undocumented immigrants, Trump proposed the most significant restriction on legal immigration since Congress slashed it after World War I. Projections by the non-partisan Pew Research Center suggest that, compared to current law, Trump’s plan would reduce legal immigration through 2065 by tens of millions. “The actual number of people who might not come to the United States would be at least 30 million, possibly more,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, Pew’s director of Hispanic research.
Such a reduction, or anything like it, would have huge implications for population and workforce growth; the solvency of Social Security and Medicare; and the Republican Party’s future. Many Republican strategists fear that Trump’s fulminations against undocumented immigrants could alienate Hispanics from the party as lastingly as Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act did African Americans. A parallel campaign to squeeze legal immigration could also repel Asian Americans, who Pew projects will be the largest group of lawful migrants in coming years.
The key to Trump’s new proposal was his call for a commission to develop policies that would, as their first identified goal, “keep immigration levels, measured by population share, within historical norms." Trump’s campaign didn’t respond to requests to clarify how he defined “historical norms.” But Lopez calculates that the foreign-born have comprised on average 10 percent of the U.S. population since 1850.
Today, immigrants represent around 14 percent of the population, well above that average. As Trump correctly noted, the share of the population born abroad is on track “within just a few years” to exceed its all-time high of 14.8 percent in 1890, at the Melting Pot Era’s height. Pew projects that under current law the foreign-born population share will pass that milestone in about a decade—and reach 18 percent by 2065.
Even limiting the foreign-born population share to around 10 percent would still allow considerable numbers of new immigrants to enter over time, both because earlier generations will pass away and the total U.S. population will increase, Lopez notes. But, he quickly adds, not nearly as many would arrive as under current law. As a result, after subtracting deaths and departures, the current U.S. immigrant population of about 45 million would remain unchanged or even shrink in coming decades under Trump’s limits. By contrast, under current trends Pew projects that immigrant population to grow by fully 33 million through 2065. And because future immigrants and their children are projected to provide nearly 90 percent of the total U.S. population growth over that period, “you would be talking about a country that would grow more slowly,” Lopez adds. Over time, that would mean fewer new consumers, homebuyers, and workers.
A smaller workforce would particularly slow the economy’s future expansion. As the Baby Boomers retire, it would also intensify financial pressure on Social Security and Medicare by diminishing the number of working-age adults paying taxes to support each retiree. Reducing legal immigration would mostly reduce “the younger part of the population,” said the Brookings Institution demographer William Frey. “And if you take that out you are making the population older, the elderly dependence ratio higher, and reducing the labor force’s productivity.”
The U.S. has never explicitly linked immigration levels to the foreign-born population share, as Trump proposed. But the idea draws on the national-origin quotas Congress approved in 1921 and 1924. Recoiling against a wave of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe led by Slavs, Italians, and Jews, those laws slashed overall admissions and linked future immigrant flows to each country’s U.S. population share in 1890—when most immigrants came from “Nordic” Northern and Western European countries. Those laws, which also extended earlier bans on Asian migration, severely curtailed legal immigration until 1965—when Congress passed landmark legislation that reopened the doors.
In the 1920s, as today, economic, security, and above all racial anxieties converged to power the drive against legal immigration; drawing on rising unease over foreign influences following World War I, immigration opponents marshaled “an increasingly assertive racial nativism,” as historian John Higham wrote. And just as now, the immigration restrictions adopted then reinforced a broader global retreat: President Warren Harding, who signed the 1921 immigration limits, also pursued protectionism on trade and finally interred Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations. Perhaps not coincidentally, in the 1920 campaign, Harding described his platform as “America First.”
The coda to the 1920s nativist upsurge came when Franklin Roosevelt realigned American politics in 1932. The GOP-led Jazz Era drive against legal immigration helped Roosevelt (despite his own caution on the issue) cement the growing immigrant groups clustered in the nation’s largest cities into his New Deal coalition that dominated American politics for nearly four decades. Republicans may want to consider that history as Trump bugles them toward another crusade to restrict another generation of new Americans.