Trump's chief economist says we need more immigrant workers, not less

Undocumented: How an ICE raid shattered this family's American dream
Undocumented: How an ICE raid shattered this family's American dream

Following the terror attack in New York City on Tuesday, President Donald Trump is renewing calls for a merit-based immigration system that would favor those with a higher education or specific skills over those picked via random selection or who have family members living in the U.S.

"We want to immediately work with Congress on the diversity lottery program, on terminating it, getting rid of it," he said at a press conference Wednesday. "We want a merit-based program where people come into our country based on merit."

Trump backs a bill sponsored by Republican Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue that would scrap the diversity lottery and dramatically reduce the number of visas available to family members of legal residents. Such moves would cut the number of green cards given out each year by roughly half. The remaining employer-based green cards would then be given out based on a point system that heavily favors highly skilled, highly educated, English-speaking immigrants.

Related: Trump demands Congress terminate diversity immigration lottery

But while the concept of immigration solely based on an applicant's resume has the support of conservatives in Congress, the proposal also has skeptics -- even within Trump's administration.

Trump's top economic adviser, Kevin Hassett, has long maintained that the U.S. should embrace more immigrant workers, not fewer.

While a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in 2013, Hassett wrote that the U.S. could add half a percentage point to economic growth by doubling the number of immigrants it lets into the country, especially if they come on employer-sponsored visas.

"Perhaps surprisingly for a country that has long thought of itself as a nation of immigrants, the U.S. falls far behind almost all the other countries in the number of immigrants it admitted in 2010 relative to its population size," Hassett wrote.

Hassett, who is now the chair of Trump's Council of Economic Advisers, reiterated that position just last week in testimony before the Joint Economic Committee.

Related: Trump is making it harder for immigrants to start businesses

"As an economist, if you want more output, you need more input, and labor is one of those inputs," Hassett responded. "For any economy, immigration is an important source of labor."

The comment came in response to a question from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who asked Hassett what he thought about a 2013 immigration bill that she said would have reduced the federal deficit and created jobs. Known as the Gang of Eight proposal after the bipartisan group of senators who sponsored it, the bill passed the Senate and failed in the House.

That Gang of Eight plan would have eliminated the diversity visa program as well. But it also provided a path to citizenship for the 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally, raised caps for employment-based visas, and only slightly restricted the categories of relatives whom residents could bring into the country from overseas. The White House said in February that Trump would not consider a new bill along the same lines.

"I'm very grateful that my Irish ancestors came here," Hassett added in his testimony. "And I'm pretty sure that they weren't allowed here because they had computer degrees."

"Exactly. Good point," said Klobuchar. "Same with mine. Came as a chef's assistant."

Economists have generally found that there are pros and cons to a merit-based immigration system, and that the American economy needs some low-skilled workers as well. Plenty of Republicans have articulated that position as well as Democrats, who oppose the Cotton-Perdue bill as it's written.

Hassett's office did not respond to an inquiry seeking comment on Trump's latest call to reform the immigration system.

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