Trump Boasts About Rising Wages, Yet Welcomes Immigration ‘in the Largest Numbers Ever’

President Donald Trump, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence looking on, delivers the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol Building on February 5, 2019 in Washington, DC. President Trump's second State of the Union address …
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Trump added a line to his State of the Union address, saying that he wants legal migrants “in the largest numbers ever” to come into the United States.

The ad-libbed line echoes Trump’s repeated rhetorical support for the immigration of skilled workers — even though it also contradicts his 2016 campaign theme, his Inauguration Day promise of “Hire American,” his 2018 proposed “Four Pillars” immigration reforms, and his State of the Union boast he is raising wages for his blue-collar supporters.

But the inconsistency of his “largest numbers” ad-lib and his “wages are rising” boast reflects a commonplace dodge by politicians.

Politicians face contradictory pressures every day from investors who demand cheap workers and from voters who want higher wages. The easiest and most common dodge by politicians is to hide behind the law, to pretend that roughly 12 million illegal migrants have a hugely greater economic impact on Americans compared to the impact of 45 million legal immigrants.

Trump’s “largest number” claim appeared after he made his populist argument for tough border security and a border wall: “Now is the time for Congress to show the world that America is committed to ending illegal immigration and putting the ruthless coyotes, cartels, drug dealers, and human traffickers out of business.”

He ended that populist call by telling business donors what they want to hear about legal immigration. He said, “Legal immigrants enrich our nation and strengthen our society in countless ways. I want people to come into our country, in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.”

But Trump also boasted to voters about the wage growth that cannot occur if employers can import workers “in the largest numbers ever.” He said, “We are just getting started. Wages are rising at the fastest pace in decades and growing for blue-collar workers, who I promised to fight for, faster than anyone else.”

Trump’s wage boast is an obvious pitch for votes. He was elected by a huge wage of blue-collar voters, and he is raising blue-collar wages at more than three percent in 2018, in part, because he is cutting immigration slightly and is refusing investors’ demands for higher immigration.

So Trump’s legal/good, illegal/bad dodge helps him fend off the growing pressure from donors and business groups to import more workers to help block rising wages.

“I get calls from the great tech companies, and they are saying we don’t allow people at the top of their class at the best schools in the country, we don’t allow them to stay in our country,” Mr. Trump told reporters on January 4. “We have to let these great, brilliant companies have the smartest people in the world.”

The business-first rhetoric does sometimes become policy. For example, Trump’s deputies have blocked any reforms of the white-collar visa program, such as the H-1B, OPT, and L-1 programs, which keep roughly 1.5 million cheap foreign temporary workers in U.S. college graduate jobs. Those programs suppress salaries for college graduates and spike stock market gains for investors.

In recent weeks, Trump has also suggested he may back a “country caps” bill that would offer a fast track to citizenship for roughly 300,000 Indian visa workers who took good jobs from college graduate Americans. That bill would also offer a fast track to citizenship for the next wave of Indian workers who take jobs from the next wage of U.S. college graduates. The Indian “country caps” bill is backed by Colorado Republican Rep. Ken Buck and North Dakota GOP Sen. Kevin Cramer:

But the federal government already aids CEOs and investors by tolerating the resident population of at least 12 million illegals — and also by expanding the economy with the annual addition of roughly 1.2 million legal immigrants. That is a massive inflow of legal immigrant workers who are eager to take jobs at lower wages from the 4 million young Americans who enter the workforce each year. The inflow of extra labor generates massive profits and gains for CEOs, employers, investors, and real estate owners.

So Trump also used his speech to make a populist pushback against the CEOs and wealthy progressives who welcome legal and illegal immigration. That pushback was wrapped in a criticism of illegal migration:

Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards. Meanwhile, working class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal migration — reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools and hospitals, increased crime, and a depleted social safety net.

Trump does not apply his “working class … pay the price” logic to legal immigrants, even though they also lower wages, overburden schools, and use more welfare.

Trump was a New York builder and real estate investor who lived and breathed the law of supply and demand. He knows that more legal — or illegal — migrants will depress Americans’ wages and spike housing costs before the 2020 election.

“The social problems caused by mass illegal immigration aren’t really that different from those caused by mass *legal* immigration,” said a tweet from Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

But Trump’s “largest numbers ever” comment shows he is not determined to cut legal immigration, Krikorian wrote. “The guy is not a restrictionist”:

Trump’s different comments spotlight his “contradictory impulses,” said Mickey Kaus, an influential advocate for immigration reform.

The main political question for now is which of the two contradictory impulses Trump will push during the run-up to the 2020 election: the donor-pleasing “largest numbers ever” policy or the voter-boosting “Wages are rising” policy?

The obvious answer is that Trump will embrace both contradictory impulses and will try to dodge the investor vs. voter divide in the GOP.

He will get contradictory advice from his pollsters and fundraisers, from his political planners and his economic aides, and then will deliver contradictory messages when he meets with needed donors in the White House or vital voters at his rallies.

Trump is not a judge and need not choose either goal. He is a politician, and like many other politicians, he will duck and dodge while giving each side just enough of what they need to donate or turn out in his next election.

So expect Trump to continue calling for “the largest numbers ever” as he celebrates the reality that “wages are rising.” If Trump wins in November 2020, his contradictory messages will have complemented his re-election campaign:

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