Merit, Not Nepotism, Should Guide Our Immigration Law


May 27, 2019

By Dale L. Wilcox

While the bulk of President Trump’s immigration policy has been defined by his approach to illegal immigration, our legal immigration system has been desperately in need of reform for decades. This area was given some much-needed attention in Trump’s recent immigration proposal, and we are long past due for a national discussion on the issue.

Legal immigration reform is unfortunately not broadly understood by the American public, a fact which the President acknowledged in his speech. While the recurring image of invading caravans is generally all the explanation needed when it comes to closing the loopholes in our asylum laws, the need to reform our legal-intake system isn’t as amenable to immediate communication, especially considering the juggernaut of special interests who pour billions into advocating for ever higher numbers and a constant flow of cheap foreign labor.

While the President apparently won’t be addressing current numbers—saying there will be “no change to the number of green cards allocated”—he did address the current type of immigrant we’ve been letting in. As he stated, the amount of skilled and educated immigrants we currently take in is a pitiful 12 percent; a number that would increase to 57 percent under his new plan.

Such a percentage can’t be found anywhere else in the developed world. This is because family-based immigrants, for instance, by definition come in without any consideration of economic needs. Given developed economies, such as ours, are increasingly knowledge-based and increasingly threatened by the mass automation of many unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, the President’s call for change could be the most important proposal of his presidency.

Under our current “family reunification” system, citizens and permanent residents can sponsor spouses and children in addition to non-immediate family members. This includes parents, grandparents, and even adult siblings, such as a citizen’s 50-year brother who has a wife and children of his own. As civil rights icon Barbara Jordan once noted when she chaired a blue-ribbon panel on immigration years back, reuniting adult siblings is not a ”compelling national interest.”

Such a sprawling system, unparalleled in the world, is what leads to the “chain migration” effect, where a single immigrant could end up generating dozens of visas for their immediate and extended family. As a result, skilled migrants are crowded out. Immigrants who get sponsored-in through relatives are not required to have either a job or language skills, and constitute a net liability on average. No one argues against a skilled worker being able to sponsor his or her spouse and young children, a fact which the President acknowledged in his speech. Extended family members like elderly in-laws, etc., however, should be required to show they qualify on their own merits.

And, yes, many of our grandparents and great-grandparents came in during the Ellis Island days (which was only 190,000 annually during the 60 years it was open), however, today the U.S. has a welfare system and social services which are far more comprehensive than they were in the early 19th Century. In other words, our current system is old fashioned.

Moreover, immigrants in the Ellis Island era mostly came from countries with living standards that were somewhat comparable to ours, so their relatives didn’t have a huge incentive to leave. Things changed when immigrants began coming from countries with fewer work opportunities and less generous welfare systems. Today, for instance, average working-class wages in the U.S. are over ten times that of Mexico; a nation far wealthier than many other immigration-source countries, such as El Salvador.

Regardless, those abroad who are related to citizens and permanent residents who may be affected by the proposed change (longer queues, etc.), of course, would still be free to come here; but only if they can meet a standard not based on nepotism. It must be understood among those who criticize the President’s proposal on moral grounds that those coming in through the family track have done so out of luck. They’re “here on the basis of random chance,” as the President put it, “… admitted solely because they have a relative in the U.S.” Such a system is unfair to those hundreds of millions of people abroad who want to come here and would if they could.

Whether he knows it or not, the President is actually tapping into an area of concern felt in many other parts of the world. Recent polls in Canada, for instance, show that a majority of respondents want family-based immigration dramatically cut. Unsurprisingly, the most popular type of immigrants by far, according to polls there, are economic immigrants already possessing a university education. A new political party has actually been created specifically to take advantage of this source of public frustration.

The hugely dominant “family reunification” portion of our immigration system, due to its chain migration effects, is putting much of our system on autopilot. It removes the decision of who and how many come here from the American people, and fails completely to consider the employment and economic conditions of the country. If the President is able to cut back on chain migration, he’ll be bringing the U.S. in line with other countries around the world as well as modernizing our immigration system so it finally fits in with the 21st century.

Dale Wilcox is executive director and general counsel at the Immigration Reform Law Institute, a public interest law firm working to defend the rights and interests of the American people from the negative effects of illegal migration.

Also published at: Dale L. Wilcox, Merit, Not Nepotism, Should Guide Our Immigration Law, The Hill, May 27, 2019.

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