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Trump's merit-based immigration plan could mean a smaller Buffalo

WASHINGTON – President Trump wants to change America's immigration system to make it "merit-based." In the process, he may well change what Buffalo looks like.

Trump's policy would shrink the wave of newcomers who  stemmed the city's population loss: refugees and other immigrants, including those who broke the law in crossing into the United States.

As a result, Buffalo and other cities that have welcomed refugees and other immigrants would be smaller and older  than they otherwise would be.

[Related: Buffalo ranks 8th among U.S. cities welcoming Syrian refugees]

That's the conclusion immigration experts have come to in reviewing Trump's philosophy on immigration, which he spelled out in his speech to Congress late last month and in a series of actions since becoming president  Jan. 20.

By switching to a "merit-based" immigration system, cracking down on illegal immigration and shrinking the number of refugees welcomed to America, Trump would close the door on the kind of low-income newcomers who have flocked to Buffalo in recent years.

In their place, theoretically, would be a smaller number of people who arrived in Buffalo not through the luck of the draw, not because of family ties, not through the refugee resettlement process, and not for low-wage work.

The Trump-era immigrants would arrive for one reason only: because America needs them. And there would be far fewer newcomers here in America - and in Buffalo.

"It definitely could have an impact on our projections of population growth in the city," Mayor Byron W. Brown said. "It could reduce our population at a time when we are seeing a resurgence."

[Related: Trump crackdown on refugees hits home for Somali community]

A merit-based system

Trump did not spell out the details of how his merit-based immigration system would work, and White House staffers did not respond to a request for details.

But two Republican immigration hard-liners,  Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, have proposed a system that would cut American immigration in half.

Under their plan, the nation would sharply reduce the number of people who can come here because of family connections. Refugee admissions would be permanently cut, too, to the level of 50,000 a year that Trump has ordered for the current fiscal year.

Trump asked the two senators to work on adding a merit-based component to their bill. Under such a system, would-be immigrants would be awarded points based on their education and skills, and the people with high point scores would be allowed to move to the United States.

That would mean America would welcome the kind of highly skilled immigrants who work at places like the University at Buffalo and the Buffalo Medical Campus – but few others.

"Codified nepotism, the endless claims for members of extended families, will end," said Ira Mehlman, media director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that for years has advocated strict limits on immigration.

Trump argues that there is a good reason to limit immigration at the low end of the economic scale.

"The current, outdated system depresses wages for our poorest workers and puts great pressure on taxpayers," he said in his speech to Congress.

Welcoming family members

America for years has welcomed newcomers based not so much on merit, but on their family connections. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 64 percent of the people who won permanent legal residence in the United States in 2014 did so because family members sponsored them.

Some 10.8 million people earned legal permanent residence in the United States in the decade ending in 2014, including about 612,000 refugees - outcasts from the world's trouble spots welcomed here by the federal government.

Add to that another pipeline of 11 million people who illegally crossed America's borders and stayed over the past few decades.

All three of those groups have one trait in common: they predominantly start toward the low end of the economic scale.

Conservatives such as Trump argue that in doing so, immigrants compete for jobs with low-income Americans and depress wages as a result. Harvard University researcher George Borjas found that immigrants contribute $35 billion to the economy annually  but reduce the wages of native Americas by $402 billion.

Trump also argues that these newcomers cost taxpayers money, and they do. In Erie County, for example, the cost of social services to support refugees from around the world has grown nearly tenfold in 10 years

"It’s a basic principle that those seeking to enter a country ought to be able to support themselves financially," Trump said. "Yet in America, we do not enforce this rule, straining the very public resources that our poorest citizens rely upon."

Newcomers boost Buffalo

In Buffalo, the immigration story has not played out the way the conservative playbook says it should.

Instead, the data indicates that immigrants have stabilized the local population and the economy.

[Related: U.S. ambassador to U.N. says Buffalo's refugees offer lessons to nation]

Some 17,244 immigrants moved to the Buffalo area between 2010 and 2015, while 16,282 people left metro Buffalo for other parts of the country. In other words, immigrants are the reason the metro area lost a net of only 279 people in the first half of the decade – a trickle compared to the loss of 22,400 people in the area in the first five years of the previous decade.

What's more, Census figures show that two West Side Buffalo zip codes with big refugee populations outstripped the county at large in job growth and business starts between 2009 and 2014.

[Related: Refugees are becoming an integral part of the economic resurgence in Buffalo]

And there's no proof that those immigrants depressed wages in the city of Buffalo, where most of the newcomers settled. The median income in the city increased 9.4 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to the Census bureau. That is a bigger increase than in several other cities in the region, including Pittsburgh, Columbus and Cincinnati as well as Rochester and Syracuse.

All of this leaves local immigration advocates fearing that a key cog in the area's economic revival is about to be removed because of Trump's immigration policies.

"You can't have an economic resurgence without population," said Eva Hassett, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo, one of the city's four refugee resettlement agencies. "If the area is to continue to grow economically, we need to attract and support immigrants that come here."

Sue Rosey Aung, a refugee from Burma who was imprisoned by the Burmese government at the age of 15 for participating in a democracy protest, sells traditional Burmese clothing at her stand in the West Side Bazaar,  March 9, 2017. She came to Buffalo five years ago. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Fewer refugees?

Trump already radically shrunk the nation's refugee resettlement program, which brings outcasts from around the world to the United States after a rigorous vetting process that can last up to two years.

Trump  suspended all refugee resettlements for 120 days and cut the number of refugees coming to America this year to 50,000, down from the 110,000 that President Barack Obama had planned to bring.

That means Buffalo – where 14,924 refugees were resettled since the start of 2002 – won't see many more outcasts moving to town this year. Buffalo won't welcome as many refugees in future years, either, if Trump keeps his annual goal at resettling 50,000 refugees, which is the lowest goal allowed under federal law.

"You could see the population start to go down again," said Kate Brick, director of state and local initiatives at the Partnership for a New American Economy, a pro-immigration group that recently released a study on the economic impact of immigration in the Buffalo metro area. "The local economy will suffer tremendously."

Immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants

That study estimated that 6,900 undocumented immigrants – those who crossed the border illegally or overstayed their visas – reside in the Buffalo area.

And while those immigrants are the ones Trump most wants to crack down on, even that could cause economic complications. Farmers already complain to Western New York members of Congress that they may lose the foreign-born workforce they need to bring in the crops, which, on occasion, includes undocumented immigrants.

Other employers who  offer low-wage jobs face the same worry, said David D. Kallick, a fellow at the Fiscal Policy Institute who has studied undocumented immigrants in the state.

"They feel it's going to be very difficult to replace these workers," Kallick said. "They are pretty confident they are not going to find the U.S.-based workforce."

An older Buffalo?

Under a merit-based immigration system, the United States would primarily seek immigrants of an entirely different sort: more skilled immigrants who could contribute to the economy without being a drain on the social services system: doctors, researchers and other skilled professionals.

But there are far fewer of those immigrants than there are refugees and others who work at jobs close to or at the minimum wage. And immigration experts such as Brick and Kallick say that could spell trouble for Buffalo in the long run.

"Without immigration, you will see a dramatically older population," Kallick said.

That would mean a smaller tax base, Brick said.

Most immigrants are of working age. In metro Buffalo, for example, they contributed $146.4 million in Social Security taxes and another $42.1 million to Medicare in 2014, her group found, not to mention another $223.3 million in state and local taxes.

Those tax contributions won't grow if the immigrant population doesn't grow, thereby leaving more of a tax burden on longtime Buffalonians, Brick said.

But that's of little concern to supporters of Trump's plan to reform and cut back on immigration.

"Our immigration policy shouldn't be designed to prevent Buffalo from losing population," said Mehlman, of the conservative immigration reform group popularly known as FAIR. "Buffalo will just have to find other ways to make the city attractive for people to move to."

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