DETROIT, MICHIGAN - Watching over his kids at a water fountain in Warren, Detroit’s largest suburb, Republican Jason Marchand says he approves of Trump — a president who has done things “that should have been done a long time ago” — and credits him for improvements in the auto industry. But he acknowledges that their views differ on the role of immigrants.
“Everybody deserves to have a change of life and populate [the city of Detroit, Michigan] more. It wouldn’t be a bad idea,” Marchand told VOA.
Yet Marchand, who is a mechanic, is just the kind of American worker - and voter - targeted by a new Senate bill. Rolled out at the White House, Wednesday, by President Donald Trump, the RAISE Act would cut legal immigration by 50 percent, part of Trump’s campaign promise to put America first.
The measure, which was first introduced in February, would establish a point system for would-be immigrants, favoring those who speak English and have marketable skills.
The aim is to put American workers first, White House senior advisor for policy Stephen Miller said during the White House press briefing Wednesday.
A bipartisan group of almost 1,500 economists wrote a letter to lawmakers in April saying they are in “near universal agreement” that, with proper safeguards, immigration “represents an opportunity rather than a threat to our economy and to American workers.”
While immigration may hurt workers in certain industries, the economists argued, benefits such as increased entrepreneurship and a flow of younger workers to replace retiring baby boomers “far outweigh” any harm that may be done.
But Miller countered Wednesday, asking, “How is it fair, or right or proper that if, say, you open up a new business in Detroit, that the unemployed workers of Detroit are going to have to compete against an endless flow of unskilled workers for the exact same jobs?”
The city of Detroit is often used to represent the plight of unemployed American workers. During the Great Recession, the city endured a 28.4 percent unemployment rate, high crime and high school dropout rates, urban blight, and a steep population decrease among native-born residents.
While Detroit remains in long-term recovery, its unemployment rate today stands at 7.8 percent. Additionally, population loss has slowed, which may be attributable to a rise in the city’s immigrant population during the same time period, according to a June study by Global Detroit and New American Economy.
“It's almost like climate change: 97 out of 100 economists recognize that immigration is a positive economic force,” said Steve Tobocman, Director of Global Detroit — an initiative that capitalizes on the economic contributions of southeast Michigan’s international population.
Miller, in what amounted to an unusual public account of administration immigration policy, disagreed. “We are constantly told that unskilled immigration boosts the economy but again, if you look at the last 17 years, we just know from reality that is not true. And if you look at wages, you can see the effects there, if you look at labor force, you can see the effects there.”
Miller added that the number of unemployed people of working age in the U.S. is “at a record high.” He said almost one in four Americans between the ages of 25 and 54 “aren’t even employed.”
In fact, government statistics show that 21.5 percent of American residents in that age range were unemployed in June. But most of those were not looking for work. Labor statisticians normally measure unemployment by looking at the number of individuals actively seeking work as a percentage of the total labor force. By that measure, unemployment stands at a relatively low 4.4 percent in June.
Detroiters are by and large not keen on villainizing the city’s legal immigrant population. Michigan’s Republican governor Rick Snyder, once called himself the “most pro-immigrant governor in the country.” Among Detroit-area working-class residents, the narrative is not too different.
On a bench nearby Marchand, democrat Ed Nouhan, a retired craftsman and “union person,” notes that his own parents were immigrants. But he is pro-immigrant only insofar as new residents are sponsored and undergo proper background checks.
“You have good and bad in every ethnic[ity] or nationality or race of people,” said Nouhan.
Marjorie Akers, a self-described single mom on a fixed income, has seen her neighborhood become increasingly diverse over the years, and is happy about it. Despite her personal economic concerns, she is happy to see her children attend a more diverse school.
“The future is more about travel and going to different countries and places and learning different things,” said Akers. “It’s always been a free country for people to be able to come and go as they please, and I think that’s good.”
The RAISE Act, introduced by Republican Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue, is expected to have a tough time in the Senate because Republicans have a slim majority and would need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster by opposition Democrats, who generally support current immigration levels.
But Miller thinks momentum will grow as more Americans learn about the bill and the pro-American worker goal behind it. “Our message to folks in Congress is, ‘If you are serious about immigration reform, then ask yourselves what’s in the best interest of America and American workers’ and ultimately, this has to be a part of that.”