Donald Trump has unveiled a long-awaited immigration policy notable for what it includes as much as it forgets. The policy was drawn up by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner over the last few months, and it shows the signs of plans drafted by someone without much knowledge or experience in immigration matters.
Trump’s model is Australia’s points-based system, much celebrated by conservatives worldwide and partly adopted for the UK by Tony Blair about a decade ago. During the Brexit referendum, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage both declared their support for such a system after the UK left the EU – although Theresa May quickly ruled it out.
Australia’s model was aimed at attracting highly skilled migrants to fill job shortages. Applications to live and work needed to earn a set number of points collected by fulfilling criteria like graduate degrees and English fluency. The idea is that highly skilled migrants would be attracted to move to Australia because they knew that, if they could earn enough points, they could work effectively right away.
This model for attracting more immigration has since been twisted into a means for restricting numbers. In the UK, the system does little to address many of the vocations on their job shortages list. Presently most immigrants enter the UK as EU citizens, family conenctions or students by-passing the system altogether. In continually making more difficult the criteria such as increasing the required salary threshold, the UK has tried to reduce migration rather than attract it. Ironically, non-EU citizens over whom the UK has full control nonetheless continue to grow each quarter while EU citizens exercising free movement have chosen to avoid Britain increasingly.
Trump’s new policy takes getting a points-based system wrong to a new level. Central are the usual criteria of scoring applicants with advanced qualifications more highly. Trump’s plans would also give points for having a job offer.
The policy goes very wrong in mandating English fluency only for a country without an established language. It also is to mistakenly discriminate not on whether someone is of working age, but on the arbitrary test of being at a young working age. Neither will likely stand up in the likely court battles to come, if Congress doesn’t sink the plans first. Even worse, Trump revisits America’s painful past of discriminating applicants by nationality which is also likely to be challenged.
So why do it?
We’d be most mistaken of all if we thought Trump’s aim was to uphold the rule of law and follow constitutional precedents. This isn’t about actually changing the law, but politics. These stillborn policies are aimed straight at his supporters and sure to play to that base as Trump prepares for his re-election campaign.
This strategy has worked surprisingly well for him in making promises he could never fulfill. It gave further fuel to his vociferous criticisms of the establishment. However, even for hardened Trump supporters, the same kind of message is likely to get more difficult to sell to the public. It is one thing to argue the system is broken, but quite another to be the President at the centre of that system. After a first term of more tough talk than concrete action, Trump’s populist approach may soon deflate like any hot air balloon if given time.
It’s a wasted opportunity to make positive changes to America’s immigration system that might have been realised if Trump took time to understand how that system worked and cross the political aisle to find a compromise. And in failing to address the issue of Dreamers and undocumented migrants, there remains a large hole in his immigration policy where Trump continually fails to show leadership.
Thom Brooks is Dean of Durham Law School @thom_brooks