Would he go hard or go soft? That was the mainstream media template for judging Donald Trump's speech on immigration in Phoenix last Wednesday. The verdict: hard. "How Trump got from Point A to Point A on immigration," was the headline in the Washington Post's recap.
Similarly, the often-insightful Talking Points Memo blogger Josh Marshall characterized Trump's discourse as "hate speech." "Precisely what solution Trump is calling for is almost beside the point."
That's precisely wrong. Marshall found the Phoenix crowd's raucous shouts distasteful, and so did I. But a search through Trump's prepared text and his occasional digressions fails to disclose anything that can be fairly characterized as "hate speech."
Instead it discloses some serious critiques and proposals for recasting our immigration laws, which almost everyone agrees need changing.
Start near the end, with the 10th of Trump's 10 points. He notes that we've admitted 59 million immigrants since the last major revision of immigration law in 1965, and that "many of these arrivals have greatly enriched our country." No asides about criminals or rapists.
Then he proposes a major policy change: "to select immigrants based on their likelihood of success in U.S. society, and their ability to be financially self-sufficient ... to choose immigrants based on merit, skill and proficiency."
That's not racism or hate speech, and it's not out of line with American tradition.
Emma Lazarus' oft-quoted poem commends America for welcoming "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses" and "the wretched refuse of your teeming shore." But during the great wave of immigration from eastern and southern Europe from 1892 to 1914, the Ellis Island inspectors, in line with national policy, excluded those deemed incapable of supporting themselves as well as those with communicable diseases.
And the United States deported immigrants judged to be terrorists. American immigration policy even then wasn't completely open door.
Trump seems to be calling, in non-provocative language, for changing immigration law to give priority to high-skill immigrants, as do the immigration laws of Canada and Australia. That's not racist: Those countries admit plenty of non-whites. But they do required proficiency in English (or French in Canada).
Both have higher foreign-born percentages of population than the United States, and both have students who score higher on PISA international achievement tests than U.S. students do. No wonder a diplomat from one of those countries told me, half in jest, "Please do not adopt our immigration system."
Every serious expert concedes that the 1965 immigration act resulted in an unexpected huge flow of low-skill immigrants, especially but not only from Mexico. Most serious scholars agree that has tended to reduce, at least a little, wages for low-skill Americans. Do we really need another inrush of unskilled workers in the next few decades?
Near the beginning of his speech, Trump said, "The media and my opponent discuss one thing, and only this one thing: the needs of people living here illegally." That's an exaggeration, but not by much: mainstream media judges Trump hard or soft depending on what he says about illegals. "The central issue is not the needs of the 11 million illegal immigrants -- or however many there may be," he went on. "The only one core issue" is "the well-being of the American people."
To some, this sounds like bigotry, prejudice against foreigners, a preference for a mostly (but far from totally) white populace over a vastly larger (and mostly non-white) humanity. They instinctively prefer Hillary Clinton's version of open borders, allowing anyone who gets here and isn't criminally convicted to stay.
Trump's answer came earlier in the day, in Mexico City, as he shook hands and spoke cordially with President Enrique Pena Nieto. I like and admire him, Trump said; he loves his country and I love mine. Nieto's invitation, much criticized in Mexico, was prompted by his need to get along with whoever is elected U.S. president. That need likewise prompted his cautious remarks about Trump in a joint news conference with Barack Obama earlier this summer.
Trump's threats of trade retaliation and suggestion he might not honor NATO obligations provide rationales for voting against him as irresponsibly reckless. His immigration proposals don't.
His proposals for visa tracking and E-Verify validation of job applicants -- similar to Marco Rubio's -- would marginally reduce the illegal population, as would his deportation of some illegals.
More important, though ignored by mainstream media, is that his policies would produce more high-skill immigrants and Hillary Clinton's plan would produce more low-skill immigrants. Which is better for America?