It was not that long ago that a Republican presidential candidate vowed that “we will make America great again.” His name was Ronald Reagan, and he made that promise to restore American greatness at the most appropriate place he could imagine: in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.
It is worth recalling Reagan’s words that day, as we debate the Trump administration’s proposal to cut legal immigration in half.
The Statue of Liberty has at its base a poem, “The New Colossus,” which exhorts the world: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Asked recently whether the White House immigration proposal was consistent with those words, Trump adviser Stephen Miller dismissed the significance of the poem, declaring it “was added later [and] is not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.”
Perhaps, but for Reagan its words were central to his vision of American greatness.
In that address in 1980, Reagan embraced the poem, declaring, “It is fitting that … we meet beside the waters of New York harbor, with the eyes of Miss Liberty on our gathering and … the words of the poet whose lines are inscribed at her feet. … Through this ‘Golden Door,’ under the gaze of that ‘Mother of Exiles,’ have come millions of men and women, who first stepped foot on American soil right there, on Ellis Island, so close to the Statue of Liberty. … They helped to build that magnificent city across the river. They spread across the land building other cities and towns and incredibly productive farms. … They brought with them courage, ambition and the values of family, neighborhood, work, peace and freedom.”
Notice he made no mention of advanced degrees. Reagan did not buy into the zero-sum economics behind the Trump immigration proposal, which holds that American-born workers are being displaced by low-skilled immigrants, who are taking their jobs and reducing their wages. He believed that immigrants, both skilled and unskilled, were critical to unleashing economic growth that would lead to greater prosperity for all. Reagan rejected “Jimmy Carter’s view of … [an] ever-shrinking economic pie with smaller pieces for each of us” and promised, “We can have a bigger pie with bigger slices for everyone. … We can make that dream that brought so many of us or our parents and grandparents to this land live once more.”
Indeed, the academic research on immigration and jobs tends to support Reagan’s view. A 2010 study by Giovanni Peri, a professor at University of California at Davis, found that “When the economy is growing, new immigration creates jobs in sufficient numbers to leave native employment unharmed, even in the relatively short run and even for less-educated native workers.” Indeed, Peri found that in the long run, immigration “unambiguously improves employment, productivity and income” for the native-born and immigrants alike.
Studies do show that high-skilled immigration boosts native-born Americans’ jobs and wages the most — so increasing the number of visas to attract such skilled workers makes sense. But, as Pia Orrenius of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and Madeline Zavodny of Agnes Scott College point out, “less-skilled immigrants make a vital economic contribution in that they have very high employment rates and fill jobs that few Americans want while providing services that many Americans demand.”
The Wall Street Journal editorial board notes that “employers in a myriad of industries including construction, agriculture and hospitality are facing a severe labor shortage” and points out that the Labor Department’s most recent Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey shows there were 6.2 million unfilled job openings at the end of June. Reducing the supply of foreign-born workers in the midst of a labor shortage could slow economic growth, which would result in fewer jobs for native-born workers and increase incentives for illegal immigration.
It is sad that some Republicans seem to have given up on the Reagan idea of a growing pie with bigger slices for all. They should heed Reagan’s vision for unleashing American greatness. “I want, more than anything I’ve ever wanted, to have an administration that will … let millions of people know that Miss Liberty still ‘Lifts her lamp beside the golden door.’ We will … carry on the building of an American economy that once again holds forth real opportunity for all, we shall continue to be a symbol of freedom and guardian of the eternal values that so inspired those who came to this port of entry. Let us pledge to each other, with this Great Lady looking on, that we can, and so help us God, we will make America great again.”
That was the original conservative vision for making America great again.
Marc A. Thiessen is a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and former chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush.