WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump’s blunt suggestion last week that the United States is too “full” to accommodate migrants isn’t shared by lawmakers from some of the least populated areas of the country, who maintain that lawful immigrants are more than welcome in their states.
“I don’t think the country’s full. We’ve got a lot of room in North Dakota and there’s even more in Montana,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), whose home state of North Dakota boasts just 760,000 people, according to the latest U.S. census estimate, told HuffPost on Tuesday.
During a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border last week, Trump urged migrants fleeing violence in Central America to turn back because “our country is full.”
“Whether it’s asylum or anything you want ― illegal immigration ― we can’t take you anymore,” Trump declared, insisting the U.S. immigration system is overburdened and unable to process more asylum requests. “Our country is full. Our area is full. The sector is full. Can’t take you anymore, I’m sorry. Turn around,” he added during a round table in El Paso, Texas.
While Trump likely meant the strained U.S. immigration system can’t handle a larger influx of migrants seeking asylum — a debatable point in itself — his assertion that the country simply doesn’t have the space to accommodate more immigrants runs counter to consensus among demographers and economists as well as maps of the United States’ population density.
It’s also at odds with Trump’s State of the Union address earlier this year, in which he called for the “largest numbers ever” of legal immigrants to enter the country.
Despite Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and cuts in refugee admissions abroad, his administration has taken steps to increase up to 30,000 additional H-2B visas for temporary foreign workers in housekeeping, landscaping and other fields ― a move GOP lawmakers have applauded.
“I believe that we need more skilled legal immigrants,” Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, another mostly rural state, said on Tuesday. She called H-2B visas critical to her state’s industries and said she would “welcome more legal immigrants to come to our state.”
It’s unclear whether the government can handle a larger influx of migrant families seeking asylum within the U.S. without additional resources to process them. U.S. Border Patrol says rising seasonal temperatures have led to a record number of border apprehensions, far higher than the 2014 migrant surge under President Barack Obama. Trump recently threatened to close the U.S. border with Mexico entirely to deal with the matter.
“If [Trump] is speaking about the system, and I think he is, yeah, we’ve got a system that’s pretty jam-packed,” Cramer added when asked about the president’s remarks regarding asylum-seekers over the weekend.
Demographers and economists are alarmed about the aging U.S. population and declining birthrates, and say that if trends continue, they will threaten future economic growth. A shrinking labor force, they add, could further harm the health and stability of safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare.
It’s a problem that Republican lawmakers readily acknowledge.
“We need immigration just to maintain our existing population,” said Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, which is the fifth-least densely populated state in the country. He, too, said his home state is not “full” by any means, but argued the president was right to point out that the asylum system needed reforms.
Other GOP senators said they believed Trump was simply exasperated by the influx of migrants on the border and was seeking ways to address it.
“I think the president is frustrated and he doesn’t know how to stop it,” said Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana. “We have a helluva problem.”
Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri insisted the president did not seriously believe the country cannot accommodate more people. He pointed to the ouster of Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen as more evidence of Trump’s frustration about the situation on the border.
“I’m sure he doesn’t mean it,” Blunt said on Tuesday. “We need a growing, vibrant workforce. Part of that will be people who add to who we are.”
Democrats, meanwhile, pointed to Trump’s rhetoric about migrants as yet more evidence of his failure to achieve success on the border wall, his signature immigration proposal, especially after the fight over funding it.
“He’s embarrassed,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois. “He was the border wall president and now his border policies and immigration policies have disintegrated before his eyes and he doesn’t know which way to turn. So he’s decided to get tougher than ever, and that will never solve this problem.”