While President-elect Donald Trump made immigration a cornerstone issue of his campaign, much of his program revolved around stemming the flow of illegal immigration. But the United States also has a flawed legal immigration system, which allows some 1 million people to gain lawful status here every year. The bulk of these legal immigrants enter based on family ties. By contrast, many developed nations have shifted to a skills-based approach to immigration, one that seeks to admit residents with talents that the country needs and skills that are likely to make them successful, productive citizens. America should do the same.
About 15 percent of legal immigrants to the United States receive work visas for people with special skills, advanced degrees, or money to invest in job-creating enterprises. The total, about 150,000 people, includes spouses and minor children of these individuals. Another 10 percent of legal immigrants in recent years have been refugees or asylum-seekers. The country also has a so-called diversity visa, which it uses to grant legal status to about 50,000 immigrants annually from countries that haven’t sent the U.S. many immigrants lately. What remains, about 65 percent of legal immigration, is based on family ties—spouses, children, parents, and siblings of adult American citizens, as well as spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents.
The current family system derives from 1965 legislation that replaced strict national quotas with preferences for family ties. The more people the U.S. admitted legally, the longer the backlist of relatives waiting to get in grew. Under pressure, Congress kept expanding the program to allow more and more legal immigrants into the country—from about 300,000 annually in 1964, the year before the legislation, to the 1 million annually of last year—based on nothing more than family ties.
More than just growing the number of immigrants, however, the new system also changed the mix of immigration. Before the 1965 law, nearly 70 percent of immigrants to the U.S. hailed from Europe or Canada. After 1965, immigrants from Latin American and Asian countries constituted about 85 percent of legal immigration. As the mix changed, the ability of those coming to integrate themselves culturally and economically has flagged. A study of Census data by Harvard economists George Borjas and David Katz looked at Mexican immigrants arriving in the United States in the 1970s. Even after 20 years, these immigrants earned less than 50 percent of the average American worker’s wage. That’s a distinctly different outcome than what immigrants during the great waves of the early twentieth century experienced. Then, foreign-born workers took an average of just 15 to 20 years to close the wage gap with native-born workers.
Defenders of the current system, including President Obama, say that it promotes family unification. That’s only really true in extreme cases, though, such as for refugees from war. By contrast, most of those coming here legally are doing so by choice, mostly to seek a better life. There is nothing inherently humanitarian about allowing them to bring along their children, spouses, parents, and adult siblings with their families.
Many countries have moved away from immigration systems that emphasize family preferences. In the late 1980s, Australia began trying to attract workers with training and experience in the jobs that the country’s businesses needed filled. In 20 years, Australia flipped its system completely from one in which about 70 percent of legal immigrants were granted status based on family connections to one in which seven in ten immigrants are granted entry because of their trade. In Canada (the country to which many anti-Trumpers supposedly want to emigrate), those applying for legal immigration status earn points for certain desirable characteristics, such as advanced degrees and the ability to speak English or French.
Over the years, many bipartisan attempts to transform our legal immigration system have foundered. In the 1990s, the so-called Jordan Commission, created by President Bill Clinton and chaired by former Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan, concluded after extensive study that our current system had tipped the balance too far toward low-skilled immigrants. The commission argued instead for a skills-based revision, but advocates of the family system blasted the recommendation as “anti-family,” and Clinton withdrew his support.
Similarly, the 2007 immigration-reform act, largely pushed by Senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy, advocated moving away from family criteria to a Canadian-style points system. Critics on the left termed the bill “anti-family,” and it died quickly when those on the right objected to the legislation’s path to legalization for illegals.
Though Trump campaigned on building a wall and refusing admission to refugees from parts of the world that have served as recruiting bases for terrorists, he also pledged to “reform legal immigration to serve the best interests of America and its workers.” The best way to do that is to leave behind our outdated family-preference system.
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