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Trump Adviser Krikorian Backs Shift To Merit-Based Immigration


Let's track President Trump's shifting views and shifting story on immigration. The Washington Post offers the backstory to an explosive immigration meeting last week. The president said, as you may recall, in a televised meeting that he would sign any deal for people brought to the United States as children, and then conservatives persuaded him to take a harder line.

In a later meeting, the president offered racist views about immigrants from Haiti and Africa, remarks that he liked until he saw the negative reaction. And then he tweeted his words had been twisted and that he really meant to promote immigration based on merit. So that's what we'll discuss with our next guest - merit immigration. Mark Krikorian has advised the president on immigration. He is director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which promotes tighter immigration rules.

Thanks for coming by this morning. Really appreciate...

MARK KRIKORIAN: Glad to be here.

INSKEEP: OK. So some of the president's supporters have denied that he used a specific expletive in this meeting, but they haven't really at all denied that the president said he preferred immigrants from Norway, countries like that instead of Haiti and Africa. Is that a merit system?

KRIKORIAN: Well, not if it's based on nationality, but...

INSKEEP: That's something else entirely, OK.

KRIKORIAN: Yeah, yeah, sure. But, I mean, the point is that if you're basing immigrant selection on skills and education - basically, ability to succeed in the first-world economy - then immigrants from Asia and Europe probably would, just by default, end up more likely to succeed, though that's obviously not the yardstick that we should be using to pick people.

INSKEEP: Really? That's interesting. Why would immigrants from Asia and Europe be more likely to succeed than someone from Africa?

KRIKORIAN: Well, literacy, level of education - this sort of thing - familiarity with modern life. I mean, again, it's not the way you would pick people. It's just that it would - it might well end up that way.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Well, let me just ask about that because I think we probably could pick a country in Africa that has a much lower literacy rate for the total population than a country in Europe, say. But when people have studied the actual immigrants - and immigration is about individuals - the immigrants who come from Africa, they're found to be better educated than the average American.

KRIKORIAN: Precisely because - that's actually true. But it's precisely because they're selected based on skill and education, not because of a merit system like the president is suggesting, but almost accidentally because immigrants from Africa have generally come - the initial sort of pioneer immigrants have come as foreign graduate students, very often.


KRIKORIAN: ...That sort of thing. So inevitably, you start at a relatively high level of education.

INSKEEP: Well, you raise an interesting point. We're already getting, in some ways, the best of people from other countries, although the president has said countries "are not sending their best," quote, unquote. So merit immigration - what is it exactly?

KRIKORIAN: Well, what - first, the important point to make is it's not a moral statement. I mean, people think of - when they hear merit immigration, they sort of think, well, people who don't qualify are somehow bad. You know, they're sort of morally deficient.

That's - what we're talking about here is skills and education - people with, you know, higher levels of skills, English-language ability, that sort of thing. I mean, people, I think, kind of understand what the idea is here.

INSKEEP: The president himself in a speech over the summer did lay out a vision for what kind of people he would like to allow to come into the country legally. Let's listen to just a little bit of that.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This competitive application process will favor applicants who can speak English, financially support themselves and their families and demonstrate skills that will contribute to our economy.

INSKEEP: So is that the basic idea there that is being discussed by those legislators who want to go that direction?

KRIKORIAN: Yeah, apparent - I mean, yes, it is. And - but it's important to remember that in any immigration system, you're going to have several streams. One is going to be family. One is going to be skills, education, merit, whatever you call it. Another would be humanitarian. So we're not so much talking about making immigration all one thing or the other, but rather de-emphasizing family, which now completely takes over our immigration flow, and having a greater emphasis on skills and education.

INSKEEP: You know, I am kind of curious about this, though. Are you sure that better-educated, more competitive immigrants are what the president's political base really wants to see coming to this country? Do the president's supporters want to compete for jobs against better - let's put this in a brutal way - better-educated brown people? Because as we know, if you really are going to do a merit system, you're going to let in people from Africa.

KRIKORIAN: Well, I mean, I can't read anybody's mind one way or the other. But the proposal that the president is pushing - something called the RAISE Act, which Senator Cotton from Arkansas has put together - actually leaves the level of skill-based education what it - where it is now. It just changes it to make it much more streamlined, less bureaucratic and less absurd while reducing the extended-family immigration. So in a sense, the proportion of skilled people in the flow would increase, but at least, within this legislation, the number doesn't.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's really interesting. So you're saying the number of people who have skills, who've demonstrated skills, wouldn't really change. What really happens in some of these immigration proposals is just the total number of immigrants allowed into the United States goes down.

KRIKORIAN: That's part of it. But the way our current skilled-immigration system works, it's such a Mickey Mouse system that it's actually not selecting the best people that we could select even within that format because there's all these subcategories. It's really just - it's the dream of an immigration lawyer to keep them all employed rather than a simple streamlined system, something like they have in Canada or Australia, that actually tries to take the most skilled people and then work your way down.

INSKEEP: You're right. It's an extraordinarily complicated system. It's hard for people to do it legally. Let me just ask, in the few seconds we have, though, why is it important to reduce the number of immigrants coming to the United States?

KRIKORIAN: In a few seconds...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

KRIKORIAN: I wrote a whole book on this. My broad take on this is that mass immigration is not compatible with the goals and characteristics of a modern society in a whole variety of ways, whether it's economic, fiscal, assimilation, et cetera.

INSKEEP: Isn't mass immigration America, full stop?

KRIKORIAN: No, it isn't, unless America didn't exist in the '30s, and the '40s, and the '50s and the '60s.

INSKEEP: When immigration was restricted after a period of mass immigration.

KRIKORIAN: Right, exactly.

INSKEEP: Mark Krikorian, thanks for coming by, really appreciate it.

KRIKORIAN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He is director of the Center for Immigration Studies. And if you want to find that book, it's called "The New Case Against Immigration." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.