Trump's rhetoric of 'merit' erases immigrant accomplishments and systemic injustices
The Trump administration's determination to revamp the American immigration system appears to be boundless. From its proposed redefinition of which public benefits immigrants can use without being labeled a "public charge" to its steep reduction in the US's refugee ceiling to its sudden withdrawal of legal status for immigrants from countries like Haiti and El Salvador to Donald Trump's recent flirtation with ending birthright citizenship, the administration appears willing to stretch, change or even break US laws en route to an ill-defined effort to remake American immigration around a "merit-based" approach.
At an intuitive level, its strategy makes sense. If you think of the US as a sandlot squad competing to outshine other nations in a never-ending, all-encompassing, resource-scarce Olympics, then sure, we clearly ought to treat immigration like a competitive draft. If we want to win, if we want to beat the other countries, presumably we want to vet potential new US immigrants - our new "players" - carefully. In this view, we should obviously use our immigration system to filter in only the best free throw shooters, the most beautiful models, the richest moneylenders, the cleverest scientists, etc.
While it's tautologically hard to argue against "merit" - the word is its own defense - native-born Americans ought to be careful about thinking this way about immigration.
That's because athletic teams aren't just ruthless in their decisions about new players. They're also ruthless about ensuring that they don't carry longstanding team members that drag down the squad. In other words, if we're going to apply a merit-based logic to potential new Americans, perhaps we need to apply the same filter to the native-born?
Amid our widening income, asset and regional inequalities, many Americans find themselves struggling to put together stable families and prosperous careers. Many rely on public programs of some sort to help them continue their educations, get healthcare, buy homes or feed their families.
This isn't a secret. The administration's justification of its recent effort to force immigrant families to choose between using social programs and retaining their legal status noted that US citizens without a high school diploma were more likely to rely on public benefits than immigrants without a high school diploma. For high school graduates, immigrants were slightly more likely than US citizens to use Medicaid, and slightly less likely to be on food stamps.
If we're going to set new standards for newcomers seeking to join our national team, sooner or later we're going to apply them to folks who've been here longer. When it comes to the administration's narrow understanding of merit, we Americans with deeper roots might not do well under extra scrutiny. And hey, why stop at food stamps and Medicaid?
You naturalized 15 years ago? Great. But if you get hurt on the job and need social security disability benefits, we're going to have to pull those naturalization papers up for review. Sorry, buddy, this country is working on perfecting our talent pool. We just don't have room for those who can't pull their weight. Your kid's trying to go to college, and she needs a Pell grant? There's just not room for families that are going to burden our higher education system.
This isn't your great-grandfather's US. Nowadays, we only accept the best - those who merit being and staying here. Maybe you've always been a citizen. Great. Congratulations on choosing the right parents. But we've been reviewing your tax return from last year, and we noticed that you filed for the mortgage interest deduction. Unfortunately, that's going to require us to put your citizenship on probationary status. If you're going to participate in this new, merit-based US, you're going to need to prove that you're not going to be depending on the public for tax subsidies when you buy a house.
Or maybe you've been flying high in the public eye, building a business on a range of tax evasion schemes. We're going to need you to get right with the IRS … or you'll be facing a loss of the full rights of citizenship.
Studies suggest that immigrants actually outperform Americans on host of meritorious behaviors, and actually perform worse as they integrate into American society. Or, to oversimplify a lot, as immigrants adopt our culture, language and habits, as they become more like us, their "merits" drop. They get less healthy, struggle more with their marriages and participate in crime more often - ie at rates that "more closely match the general population of native-born Americans".
Yikes. We native-born Americans are ill-positioned to level judgments on immigrants' merits, at least not without first turning an eye to our own.
Sure, the big, broad-lit American creed is about meritocracy, through and through. But it's not really about earning your citizenship before you start by having rich parents, a debt- and risk-free path to success, or a clear slate of past achievements. Being American isn't about deserving it - it's about getting an opportunity to build a better life through hard work.
It's true that the US hasn't always lived up to its stated values. We have often doled out residency, citizenship and opportunity according to immigrants' wealth and skin color. We've often diminished native-born Americans' access to full citizenship along those same lines.
But the ideal promise of the American dream has always been clear. The US has long congratulated itself for being a haven for all those willing to work to build better lives. As it happens, that treacly credo is more than just mythology. It's an enormously productive driver of national success. American magnanimity towards the world's migrants has actually served the country better than any national effort at sifting immigrants for their potential talents.
Immigrants and their children have founded a substantial chunk of America's greatest companies. Hard-working, fortune-building, nation-enhancing immigrants are as American as blue jeans. They've been central to American technological dominance - YouTube, Google and WhatsApp. Notwithstanding periodic (and current) national anxiety about immigrants' supposed political radicalism, children of immigrants are less likely to be Marxists than they are to contribute to American life like the Marx brothers. Rather than undermining American identity, immigrants tend to show up and excel at things like America's pastime - such as the Yankees' Joe DiMaggio before and the Red Sox's Xander Bogaerts today.
No question about it: the US needs comprehensive immigration reform to update its system and provide legal clarity for immigrants like the Dreamers and other residents without documentation. But the Trump administration's simplistic thinking about immigrants' "merit" doesn't advance that conversation in the slightest. Merit isn't a crisp, clear, essential trait that some people have and others lack. It defies easy measurement or national curation - even for those un-American enough to try.