Has Joe Biden Changed His Mind on a Massive Expansion of Legal Immigration?

Because he has not changed his website

By Andrew R. Arthur on April 13, 2020
  • Despite 17 million Americans out of work, Joe Biden's campaign website still contains proposals to flood the United States with millions of new immigrant workers — both skilled and unskilled.
  • Biden wants to expand the number of high-skilled visas, despite the fact that "nearly every sector of the economy is shedding workers, including manufacturing, construction and even health-care facilities outside of hospitals."
  • He wants to eliminate per-country caps on employment-based immigrant visas, a safeguard that prevents green card numbers from being monopolized by citizens of one or two countries, and one that ensures that employment-based visas are available to a truly global pool of talent in a wide variety of occupational sectors.
  • Biden plans on exempting from any immigration cap recent graduates of PhD programs in STEM fields in the United States, and giving green cards to all foreign graduates of any U.S. doctoral program with their degrees, despite the fact that there is no proof of a shortage in STEM workers, and the fact that these proposals would put those new immigrants in direct competition with American graduates seeking increasingly limited job opportunities.
  • This proposal would most significantly disadvantage African Americans, Hispanics, and women, who are largely underrepresented in most STEM fields.
  • He wants to preserve the diversity visa lottery, which requires only extremely limited skills and education, and which brings in up to 50,000 new immigrants per year — many if not most of whom compete directly with low-skilled American workers.
  • He wants to create a new agricultural amnesty program, despite the fraud that was endemic in the last agricultural amnesty. Biden's amnesty would apparently require beneficiaries to continue to work for an unspecified period in agriculture.
  • Biden also wants to give large and midsized cities and counties authority to sponsor new immigrants. Those municipalities inevitably would be subject to intimidation by local business interests to bring in cheap foreign labor, and the aliens themselves would be forced, under unspecified penalties, to remain and work in those localities for an undefined period of time.
  • Biden should be focused on expanding and improving educational opportunities for Americans — citizens, nationals, and lawful immigrants currently present alike — to prepare them to take their place in our economy, instead of swamping a shrinking job market with new foreign labor.

In my last post, I referenced briefly the positions that then-two remaining Democratic candidates, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, have taken with respect to immigration enforcement. Sanders' "suspension" of his campaign renders Biden the president's presumptive opponent. One question now is whether Biden has changed his position on legal immigration, and in particular on his plans to bring in millions of new workers, given the current economic downturn, when more than 17 million American workers are out of work.

This is not the first time that I have discussed the candidate's immigration proposals. On January 3, I wrote about his proposals to push for a massive amnesty, restore the disastrous enforcement priority policies of the Obama administration, repeal the public charge rule, "end workplace raids", expand already generous asylum standards, and codify the Flores settlement agreement (which incentivizes migrants to risk their lives and the lives of their children by entering the United States illegally). To name a few.

On February 25, I discussed Biden's extremely poorly thought through plans for a moratorium on all deportations during his first 100 days in office. Following up, on March 18, I explained how Biden had threatened to fire any ICE officer who arrests and deports otherwise removable aliens — including drunk drivers and those who entered illegally — if those aliens have not been convicted of an unspecified "felony".

I largely, however, did not touch on his plans to massively expand the number of new immigrants admitted to the United States legally. Those plans are particularly short-sighted given the parlous state of the American economy, which is reeling from shutdowns, firings, furloughs, and lay-offs in response to the Wuhan virus.

'Expanding the number of high-skilled visas'

For example, the candidate promises to work with Congress on:

Reforms [in] the temporary visa system. High skilled temporary visas should not be used to disincentivize recruiting workers already in the U.S. for in-demand occupations. An immigration system that crowds out high-skilled workers in favor of only entry level wages and skills threatens American innovation and competitiveness. Biden will work with Congress to first reform temporary visas to establish a wage-based allocation process and establish enforcement mechanisms to ensure they are aligned with the labor market and not used to undermine wages. Then, Biden will support expanding the number of high-skilled visas and eliminating the limits on employment-based visas by country, which create unacceptably long backlogs.

Biden and I both agree that: "High skilled temporary visas should not be used to disincentivize recruiting workers already in the U.S. for in-demand occupations." That said, however, he does not explain how he "will work with Congress to first reform temporary visas to establish a wage-based allocation process and establish enforcement mechanisms to ensure they are aligned with the labor market and not used to undermine wages."

Respectfully, this system has not changed much (if at all) since the eight years Biden was vice president. If the system needs reforming now (which it does), why didn't he reform it 11 years ago during the Obama-Biden administration, when his party had control of the House and a supermajority in the Senate? This makes the candidate's promises of "reform" of the "temporary visa system" ring hollow.

That said, "expanding the number of high-skilled visas" will eliminate job opportunities for American workers — U.S. citizens and nationals, and employment-authorized immigrants currently present — at a time when those jobs are needed the most.

On April 2, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) stated that it "expects that the economy will contract sharply during the second quarter of 2020 as a result of the continued disruption of commerce stemming from the spread of the" Wuhan virus. Specifically, CBO concluded that the gross domestic product will decrease by 7 percent and the unemployment rate will exceed 10 percent during the second quarter of FY 2020 (former Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen says that it is at 12 or 13 percent today).

On April 1, the Economic Policy Institute reported that 19.8 percent of all American workers will be laid off or furloughed by July, and that unemployment in Biden's home state of Delaware (for one) could reach 16.8 percent.

And the decline in employment is not limited to the service and hospitality industries. On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that "nearly every sector of the economy is shedding workers, including manufacturing, construction and even health-care facilities outside of hospitals."

As if that were not bad enough, on March 24, the Brookings Institution explained that "any coronavirus-related recession is likely to bring about a spike in labor-replacing automation," a trend that will affect "low-income workers, the young, and workers of color" the most. Those are American workers who could be retrained for the future, but instead Biden wants to replace them with foreign nationals in a sop to big business.

Eliminate per-country caps

With respect to Biden's plans to eliminate "the limits on employment-based visas by country", as my colleague Jessica Vaughan has explained, the current per country cap is "a safeguard that prevents green card numbers from being monopolized by citizens of one or two countries" and that "ensures that the employment-based visas are available to a truly global pool of talent in a wide variety of occupational sectors."

In discussing HR 1044, the "Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act" (which, similar to the former vice president's proposal, would eliminate the cap), Vaughan made clear such a step "would benefit one industry (Big Tech) and two groups of applicants (Indian tech workers and Chinese investors) and squeeze out all others."

Millions of additional family-based immigrants 

Similarly, Biden vows that he will work to allow "any approved applicant to receive a temporary non-immigrant visa until the permanent visa is processed," and will "support[] legislation that treats the spouse and children of green card holders as the immediate relatives they are, exempting them from caps, and allowing parents to bring their minor children with them at the time they immigrate."

This proposal would mean that millions of new immigrants, some if not many with few or no skills, would immediately enter the U.S. workforce, to be followed by millions more. How many? According to the State Department, as of November 2019, there were 3,494,252 applicants on the waiting list in the family-sponsored preference categories, and 125,988 in the employment-based preference categories (3,620,240 in total). That number does not count "the significant number of applications held with [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)] Offices," that is, aliens already in the United States on non-immigrant visas.

In the family-based categories, there is no requirement that those foreign nationals who would newly be eligible for Biden's non-immigrant visas will be able, at least in the short-term and likely much longer, to contribute to the American economy. That would mean a flood of new immigrants who would instantly be vying for jobs (many unskilled) in this historically tight labor market.

And notably, as the Congressional Research Service (CRS) has stated in its analysis of HR 1044, in the employment-based categories, "the INA treats derivative immigrants and principal immigrants equally for reaching the annual worldwide limit and maintaining the per-country ceiling."

In other words, even assuming that the employment-based principal applicants will contribute to the economy with jobs waiting for them, and will not displace American workers in the current downturn (two big assumptions considering the contraction in the economy caused by government's response to the Wuhan virus), there is no guarantee that their spouses will not immediately be entering the work force in competition with the lowest-skilled American workers, who themselves are currently seeking the few jobs available to them (Brookings' "low-income workers, the young, and workers of color").

As I have previously explained:

It is possible that some, most, or all of those family members brought with them the skills, education, and abilities to not only support themselves, but to grow the American economy and make life better for all Americans (both United States citizens and aliens already lawfully admitted). But there are no guarantees of that, and frankly, it is unlikely that most did.

And their children will be immediately able to enroll in school in the United States, straining state and local resources that, in many cases, are struggling themselves in the current pandemic.

'Reduce the number of visas during times of high U.S. unemployment'?

As bad as the foregoing is, it does not even include Biden's plan to further expand the number of so-called "high-skilled visas" — it is simply based on stasis in the current visa system. The candidate explains:

Currently, the number of employment-based visas is capped at 140,000 each year, without the ability to be responsive to the state of the labor market or demands from domestic employers. As president, Biden will work with Congress to increase the number of visas awarded for permanent, employment-based immigration — and promote mechanisms to temporarily reduce the number of visas during times of high U.S. unemployment. He will also exempt from any cap recent graduates of PhD programs in STEM fields in the U.S. who are poised to make some of the most important contributions to the world economy. Biden believes that foreign graduates of a U.S. doctoral program should be given a green card with their degree and that losing these highly trained workers to foreign economies is a disservice to our own economic competitiveness.

Well, I like the part about "temporarily reduc[ing] the number of visas during times of high U.S. unemployment" (a proposal the president and Congress may want to consider now), but it is really just window dressing for a massive expansion of immigrant workers. Does anyone believe that the powerful interest groups in Washington will actually (1) accede to Congress giving DHS power to cut the number of "skills-based" visas in an economic downturn; and (2) allow a Biden DHS to actually do so?

If you want proof, look simply at the current economic climate. There are plenty of bailouts (and additional bailout proposals) coming out of Congress, but have you heard anyone — senator or representative — who has actually proposed in the current economic miasma cutting employment-based visas? If not now, when? Answer: never.

Here's the truth: Big business hires powerful lobbyists to ensure they get their way in D.C. in the same way they hire white-shoe law firms to litigate on their behalf. There are no "public-defender" lobbyists representing the rights of individual American workers. In the real world, Jefferson Smith gets ruined and Jim Taylor gets rich — if we allow it to happen.

What you, the American workers (and voters), will get is a "ratchet effect", where "the number of visas awarded for permanent, employment-based immigration" goes up, but never comes back down.

STEM worker shortage?

Biden also suffers (or cynically benefits) from the popular misapprehension that there is a STEM worker shortage. In a May 2014 report, my colleagues Steven Camarota and Karen Ziegler proved that there is not:

While employers argue that there are not enough workers with technical skills, most prior research has found little evidence that such workers are in short supply. This report uses the latest Census Bureau data available to examine the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Consistent with other research, the findings show that the country has more than twice as many workers with STEM degrees as there are STEM jobs. Also consistent with other research, we find only modest levels of wage growth for such workers for more than a decade. Both employment and wage data indicate there is no shortage of STEM workers in the United States. [Emphasis added.]

You don't have to believe them (though you should). In July 2014, the Census Bureau found "74 percent of those who have a bachelor's degree in science, technology, engineering and math — commonly referred to as STEM — are not employed in STEM occupations."

In a more recent study, from January 2018, the Pew Research Center found: "About half of workers with college training in a STEM field are working in a non-STEM job."

It should be noted that study included "life scientists and health-related occupations such as health care practitioners and technicians" in its STEM definition. Significantly, Pew found:

Retention rates vary among the STEM college majors. Workers who majored in a health professions field (for example, nursing or pharmacy) are the most likely to work in STEM jobs (70% do). In contrast, workers with degrees in mathematics and statistics are the least likely (31%) to be employed in a STEM occupation.

That is simple logic. Go to medical school and become a physician. Get a DDS and become a dentist. Get a PharmD degree, and you will have full-time employment in Big Pharma or at your local CVS. Nurses always seem in high demand, and now more than ever.

Worse, African-Americans, Hispanics, and women are underrepresented in the STEM workforce, according to Pew. Hispanics make up 16 percent of the total workforce, but only 7 percent of STEM jobs. African Americans make up 11 percent of the workforce, but only 9 percent of STEM jobs.

Pew does note that: "The STEM workforce is growing, particularly for computer jobs." That said, however, the representation of women in computer jobs has actually decreased in recent decades, from 32 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 2018.

But what about all those foreign STEM graduates? Aren't they helping to grow the economy? As Camarota and Ziegler determined in May 2014:

Despite the economic downturn, Census Bureau data show that, between 2007 and 2012, about 700,000 new immigrants who have STEM degrees were allowed to settle in the country, yet at the same time, total STEM employment grew by only about 500,000.

Of these new immigrants with STEM degrees, only a little more than a third took a STEM job and about the same share took a non-STEM job. The rest were not working in 2012.

Overall, less than half of immigrants with STEM degrees work in STEM jobs. In particular, just 23 percent of all immigrants with engineering degrees work as engineers.

In total, 1.6 million immigrants with STEM degrees worked outside of a STEM field and 563,000 were not working.

The fact that a third of immigrants with STEM degrees were not working in a STEM job, and a third were just not working, completely undermines Biden's fundamental premise —to the detriment of American workers and American taxpayers.

As for "exempt[ing] from any cap recent graduates of PhD programs in STEM fields in the U.S." and giving "foreign graduates of a U.S. doctoral program" green cards, as Biden proposes, the question is: Why?

Those graduates will be in direct competition for jobs with American workers with the same degrees, and especially the underrepresented African-American, Hispanic, and female component of the STEM workforce. Plus, does it really matter whether you spent 16 years, 18 years, or 20-plus years in school in most of those professions?

Plainly, some professions require doctoral degrees — you look for the post-nominal "MD" when you are sick or "DMD" if your wisdom teeth need to come out — but many don't. As Pew found: "While STEM workers tend to be highly educated, roughly a third have not completed a bachelor's or higher-level degree."

It continues:

A substantial share (35%) of the STEM workforce does not have a bachelor's degree. Overall, about three-in-ten STEM workers report having completed an associate degree (15%) or have some college education but no degree (14%). These workers are more prevalent among health care practitioners and technicians, computer workers and engineers.

Some 36% of STEM workers have a bachelor's degree but no graduate degree. Roughly three-in-ten STEM workers (29%) have earned a master's, doctorate or professional degree. Life scientists are the most highly educated among STEM workers, with 54%, on average, having an advanced degree. [Emphasis added.]

In order words, 71 percent of STEM workers in the United States have a bachelor's degree or less. The candidate never explains why, exactly, an advanced degree should equal permanent resident status, but while equating America's retention of aliens with STEM PhDs with its "economic competitiveness" may sound good in the abstract, it does not hold up in the concrete.

Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft? College dropout. Co-founder Paul Allen? College dropout. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs? College dropout. His partner Steve Wozniak? College dropout. They are in good company, with Michael Dell of Dell Computers, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Oracle's Larry Ellison, and Twitter's Jack Dorsey (to name a few). Those individuals are a big part of the reason for American competitiveness, but none meets Biden's standard.

I have a doctorate (albeit not in STEM), and all I really had to do was graduate from one institution, take a test, and get into another one; find the money to pay for it; and sacrifice the earnings that I would have made during the process. There is a reason why the seminal novel on law school is called The Paper Chase. Are STEM PhDs really that different?

And speaking of my Juris Doctor, I assume that if I were an alien, as a graduate of an American university with a doctorate (George Washington University School of Law, JD '92), I would get a green card, too. Does anyone seriously think America has a shortage of lawyers? Apparently Joe Biden (Syracuse University, JD '68) does.

Biden should instead be focused on ensuring that American students have the skills and opportunities for employment in a post-virus economy, not on using an advanced degree as a (poor) proxy for suitability for lawful permanent resident status and ultimately (ideally) citizenship.

Preserve the visa lottery

It only gets worse from there. Biden vows to:

Preserve[] preferences for diversity in the current system. Trump has set his sights on abolishing the Diversity Visa lottery. This is a program that brings up to 50,000 immigrants from underrepresented countries to the U.S. each year. He has disparaged the system as a "horror show" and repeatedly misrepresents how the lottery is administered, while demonizing and insulting with racist overtones those who receive the visas. Diversity preferences are essential to preserving a robust and vibrant immigration system. As president, Biden will reaffirm our core values and preserve the critical role of diversity preferences to ensure immigrants everywhere have the chance to legally become U.S. citizens.

I would note that Biden's general vow to "[p]reserve preferences for diversity in the current system" is, as shown above, inconsistent with his vow to remove the per-country caps on immigrant admissions. As CRS has noted, the current "statutory 7% per-country ceiling" for employment-based immigrant visas "prevents the monopolization of employment-based green cards by a few countries." Strong words from a nonpartisan outfit.

That said, however, the diversity visa lottery is likely one of the worst components of our immigration laws, and admitting even more aliens under that program is especially senseless at a time when the country faces (or is in) double-digit unemployment.

By way of background, according to USCIS:

The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program (DV Program) makes up to 50,000 immigrant visas available annually, drawn from random selection among all entries to individuals who are from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. The DV Program is administered by the U.S. Department of State.

What are the problems with the program? First, as an evergreen point, it poses unnecessary national security risks. No fewer than five diversity-visa lottery recipients have been involved in terrorist attacks in the United States.

Not that this should be a surprise. There is no requirement that lottery applicants have any ties to the United States whatsoever, although such ties would logically make it less likely that an individual would attack our institutions or threaten our national security.

And, as I noted in a November 2017 post on one of those plots, all the way back in 2005, Howard J. Krongard, then-inspector general of the State Department, testified: "OIG continues to believe that the Diversity Visa program contains significant risks to national security from hostile intelligence officers, criminals, and terrorists attempting to use the program for entry into the United States as permanent residents." Despite these facts, there have been no statutory changes to prevent such exploitation of the program.

Second, as Camarota noted in a Los Angeles Times op-ed in 2017:

Enacted in its current form in 1990, the lottery was meant to increase diversity by allowing more immigration from countries that send relatively few people to the United States. Often, citizens from these countries lack the skills to qualify in one of the employment-based visa categories. Besides living in such a country, the only prerequisites are a high school education or two years of work experience in a job that requires two years of training. The roughly 50,000 winners receive a green card ... for themselves, their spouses, and children. After five years in the United States, they can become citizens and begin to sponsor other relatives.

The whole idea was based on the very odd notion that every individual in the world should have some chance of coming to the United States. The interests of the American people were certainly not a paramount consideration when Congress created this program.


Given our modern economy, it makes no sense to run a program that brings in tens of thousands of immigrants each year, many of whom have very modest levels of education. [R]eal wages for Americans with this level of education have either stagnated or declined over the long term, and the share of less-educated Americans in the labor market is at or near historic lows. [Emphasis added.]

Those points are more salient in the current economic situation than they were more than two years ago. The American workers whom Brookings identified as most vulnerable in the current downturn in employment are the ones who bear the consequences of the visa lottery the most.

If the former vice president were actually interested in diversity in our immigration system, and really improving the stuttering economy, he would embrace a merits-based immigration system like the one proposed by the president in May 2019.

With respect to that proposal, in January I argued that:

While it would not guarantee that the future United States has the right mix of skilled workers for the world of tomorrow, it would do a much better job than an immigration system largely based (like our current system) on who you are related to. It would provide opportunities to potential immigrants who currently have no avenue to immigrate. And, best of all, it is anti-discriminatory, because it is blind to race, nationality, religion, or ethnicity. Skills are not limited to any one group, and a merit-based immigration system would draw from the best of them all.

Despite this fact, Biden rejects what he terms the "the false choice between employment-based and family-based immigration." He never explains how that is a "false choice", however. To the contrary, it is a real one that he is on the wrong side of. And ending the senseless diversity visa lottery, which admits up to 50,000 aliens per year based not on skills (let alone family ties) but on pure luck alone is the best place to start.

Let cities and counties 'petition for additional immigrant visas'

Not content with these plans to flood the United States with unskilled workers, Biden takes it one step further, proposing: "a new visa category to allow cities and counties to petition for higher levels of immigrants to support their growth." Specifically:

As president, Biden will support a program to allow any county or municipal executive of a large or midsize county or city to petition for additional immigrant visas to support the region's economic development strategy, provided employers in those regions certify there are available jobs, and that there are no workers to fill them. Holders of these visas would be required to work and reside in the city or county that petitioned for them, and would be subject to the same certification protections as other employment-based immigrants.

There are two major flaws in this plan.

First, as susceptible as Congress is to the whims of big business, imagine how pliable counties and cities would be to demands by local businesses (and in particular, major local employers) to demands for more cheap immigrant labor.

We have already seen states and localities pitted against one another by companies seeking tax breaks. Imagine a situation in which an industry in hypothetical Jefferson County demanded a bunch of the former vice president's new visas, or else they will move some, part, or all of their operations to (again, hypothetical) Hamilton County. Jefferson's officials will be confronted with the prospect of losing a few jobs, or a lot. The larger the employer, the more pressure on municipal officials to cave.

Second, Biden never explains how he plans to force those new immigrants to remain in Jefferson County once they have their green cards. Freedom of movement is one of our most cherished values, but Biden would (somehow) propose to eliminate it for this class of lawful permanent residents — putatively forever. Frankly, even voluntary serfdom is serfdom, and anathema to the very core of our being as Americans.

Farmworker amnesty

In that vein, Biden also wants amnesty for illegal agricultural workers. Or, as he puts it, he wants to:

Provide[] a path to legalization for agricultural workers who have worked for years on U.S. farms and continue to work in agriculture. Securing adequate, seasonal help in the agricultural sector can be inefficient and difficult to navigate, causing people to avoid or exploit the system, even when jobs remain unfilled. Biden supports compromise legislation between farmworkers and the agricultural sector that will provide legal status based on prior agricultural work history, and a faster-track to a green card and ultimately citizenship. [Emphasis added.]

Having done a little farmwork in my life, I understand that it can be fulfilling to tend the soil and mind the herds. That said, however, it can also be arduous labor, and those who perform it can be subject to exploitation, as the former senator from Delaware admits: "Biden ... will ensure labor and safety rules, including overtime, humane living conditions, and protection from pesticide and heat exposure, are enforced with respect to these particularly vulnerable working people."

Implicit in Biden's proposal is the promise of a green card in exchange for some period of continued servitude in the agricultural industry, if not for the same employer (the details are a little vague). Purely theoretically, that condition makes sense, as many if not most would use an unlimited amnesty to move out of the agricultural sector and into more lucrative, less grueling employment. Practically, however, it again smacks of serfdom in its basest form, tying the applicant to the soil for some unspecified period.

Further, Biden never explains how he will "ensure labor and safety rules, including overtime, humane living conditions, and protection from pesticide and heat exposure" for what he admits are "particularly vulnerable working people". The resources that the federal government has to root out abuses in the legal immigration system are extremely limited (as I will detail in a future post). Without a massive (and extremely costly) expansion of those resources, enforcement of the protections Biden promises would be impossible.

And I'm not sure if Biden has ever been on a farm, but even a single one can consist of fields that are spread far apart, separated by miles of emptiness. In the heartland, you can see a car coming for miles, which means employers would have plenty of heads up that the feds were coming. "Hats and N-95 masks on, everybody!"

All of which raises the question of why Biden, understanding the "particular vulnerability" of these workers, did not do more to protect them under the Obama-Biden administration. Why not additional safety requirements, more inspectors, better monitoring? Because really, again, it is all window dressing for the amnesty.

Of course the last agricultural amnesty (the Special Agricultural Worker (SAW) program in 1986) was rife with fraud. As Camarota has noted:

At the time, The New York Times described SAW as "one of the most extensive immigration frauds ever perpetrated against the United States government." Philip Martin, a professor at the University of California at Davis and one of the leading experts on the program, described it as "rife with fraud." In total, nearly 1.1 million illegals received amnesty under SAW, even though there were only an estimated 400,000 eligible.

There is no reason to believe that Biden's plan would not be similarly susceptible to such fraud, with the added problem that employers would have a vested interest in claiming that any number of aliens had worked illegally for them in the past, in order to ensure the availability of their pliable labor in the future.

In summary, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden promises that, if elected, he will flood the country with millions of immigrants to compete (in particular) with the most vulnerable workers in an economy that is shaky, to say the least.

Well, at least he promised that in the past. But if he has reconsidered, he has not changed his campaign website. Maybe it is time for a redo.

Topics: Politics