Whom Should Our Immigration System Serve?

The question the Kushner-Trump immigration plan puts on the table

By Andrew R. Arthur on May 17, 2019

On May 15, 2019, CNBC reported on the “sweeping new proposal” that will be introduced by President Donald Trump (crafted under the guidance of his son-in-law Jared Kushner) that would reform legal immigration in the United States. The fundamental question underpinning that proposal and the inevitable responses thereto is “whom should our immigration system serve?”

As the network reports:

The [White House] officials [who briefed the press] said they have aggressive economic goals for the plan, predicting that it would increase annual GDP by 0.17 percentage point over 10 years, add $500 billion in new tax revenue, and reduce spending on social safety net programs by about $100 billion.

It would do that largely by moving away from the current family based immigration system – under which a large factor in being considered for citizenship is whether the applicant has family already in the country – to an economic system that would take into account the applicant’s education, employability and even ability to create jobs in the United States.

This would be a sea change in immigration to the United States. Over the past 35 years, according to my colleague Jessica Vaughan, 20 million of the 33 million immigrants admitted to the United States were chain-migration immigrants, that is, immigrants who were sponsored by relatives already in the United States. 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.

Immigrants are placed on a path to citizenship, and except for extremely limited pockets of contrarians, most Americans believe that United States citizenship is a status that should be treasured and protected. And, many abroad would eagerly invite the opportunity to achieve that status. It comes with the protection of our laws, access to our society, and the opportunity to pursue a place in what is probably the world’s most vibrant economy. We call it “the American dream” for a reason.

As the liberal Center for American Progress has noted:

In 1965, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, a sweeping law that did away with the national origins quotas and put in place the modern system of immigrant admissions the country largely still has today—a system weighted toward family reunification, with a lesser emphasis on employment-based migration. In fact, the act granted 74 percent of all permanent visas to family reunification categories. Prior to 1965, visas were split equally between employment and family reunification categories.

As I often do in making logical points about immigration, I will quote from Barbara Jordan, a civil-rights icon who was the first African-American woman elected to the House of Representatives from the south, and who at the time served as the chairman of the Clinton administration’s Commission on Immigration Reform. On June 28, 1995, she told the House Committee on the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims:

Unless there is a compelling national interest to do otherwise, immigrants should be chosen on the basis of the skills they contribute to the U.S. economy. The Commission believes that admission of nuclear family members and refugees provide such a compelling national interest, even if they are low-skilled. Reunification of adult children and siblings of adult citizens solely because of their family relationship is not as compelling.

The reasons for this conclusion should be self-evident, but even if they aren’t, Chairman Jordan presented a compelling case:

Immigration can support the national interest by bringing to the U.S. individuals whose skills would benefit our society. It also can help U.S. businesses compete in the global economy. This national interest in the competitiveness of business must be balanced by an equally compelling national interest in developing a U.S. workforce that has the skills necessary to compete in the global economy.

Note the first line: “Immigration can support the national interest.” That assumes that the United States wants an immigration policy (in the national interest) that benefits both the immigrant and American society economically.

Is that the national interest? My answer would be yes, but I must acknowledge that there are differing views. Some would argue that the national interest is served by reuniting a given immigrant with his or her mother, father, adult children, and siblings, regardless of whether they have the “skills necessary to compete in the global economy.”

If that is the national interest, the question becomes “why?” Again, except for those with extreme views, the American people largely agree that the family is the bedrock of American society. Even accepting that premise, the question becomes how far do the American people want to take such family reunification? Chain migration could more accurately be described in terms of tree migration. It is the inverse of the genealogical chart, in which the primary individual’s forebears are listed to the right of the primary individual, with parents, grandparents, great grandparents, etc. expanding ever outward in that direction.

In the tree-migration scenario, the primary immigrant has the initial roots in the United States, with the immigrants that immigrant has sponsored on the next branches, and the immigrants those immigrants have sponsored at the level above, and so on. Accepting this description, one could ask how far that tree would extend while remaining in “the national interest.”

Logically, you could answer that experientially. If you have a spouse and minor children, you likely live with those individuals, interact with them on a daily basis, and are reliant on one another for emotional and economic support. That economic and emotional support, however, likely becomes more attenuated the further you go from that nuclear family.

You might need some babysitting support from parents and siblings for that nuclear family, and possibly rely to some degree on them for financial support, but as time goes on, children grow up, and families live their own lives, your reliance on such support diminishes. Barry Levinson’s unheralded classic 1990 film, “Avalon,” portrays this process poignantly in terms of a family in Baltimore between the 1940s and the 1960s.

Skills-based immigration, on the other hand, promotes the national interest throughout the generations. Like it or not, we live in a society that has a large “social safety net” of benefits for those who are not able (or not yet able) to support themselves. In the past, that support generally came from the family (as Avalon initially portrays), or possibly “the church” (whatever the denomination). Beginning with the “New Deal” in the 1930s and accelerating through the “Great Society” in the 1960s, however, that support has largely come from the government, that is, the taxpayers.

Bringing in foreign nationals with “skills [that] would benefit our society” and transforming them into citizens grows the economy, enhances our civic life, and improves the conditions of all Americans. Consider the following headline from the Brookings Institution: “Almost half of Fortune 500 companies were founded by American immigrants or their children.” There are some important caveats to that study (the actual number was 43 percent, and of course most companies are not founded by just one individual), but consider this important statistic contained therein: “18.4 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants . . . .”

Now imagine a system in which the American people can select from the large pool of foreign nationals who want to immigrate to the United States those who would grow that 18.4 percent to something much higher, 25 percent or 50 percent (again, with help). This would reduce the strain on that social safety net in two ways: it would ensure that the immigrant him- or herself would not be reliant on federal benefits (as my colleague Steven Camarota has shown, “63 percent of households headed by a non-citizen reported that they used at least one welfare program, compared to 35 percent of native-headed households” in 2014); and it would provide employment opportunities to all Americans (again, both citizens and aliens lawfully admitted), as well as their descendants.

Most significantly, it would remove from the pool of immigrants those with fewer skills and a lower level of education who arrive and compete with the most disadvantaged members of our society for low-skilled and entry-level jobs. As Chairman Jordan noted: “Immigrants with relatively low education and skills may compete for jobs and public services with the most vulnerable of Americans, particularly those who are unemployed or underemployed.” I would not even have included the modifier “may.”

And, to the degree that you believe that diversity is a positive benefit for society (and I personally do), skills-based immigration provides such diversity in a way that chain migration does not, because skills are not concentrated in any one part of the globe. The engineer from Bangladesh and the surgeon from Nigeria likely do not, today, have the same ability to come and contribute to the United States that they would under the Trump–Kushner plan.

Tasuku Honjo, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2018, is from Japan. The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Denis Mukwege, is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As the BBC has reported, he “is known as ‘Doctor Miracle’ for his ability to repair through reconstructive surgery the horrific damage inflicted on women who have been raped.” Imagine the good he could do if he were willing and able to migrate to the United States, train others in this life (and soul)-saving work, and inspire future generations to carry forward his vision.

My resume shows that I am a product of the current immigration system: INS, Executive Office for Immigration Review, House Judiciary Committee, and House Oversight and Government Reform’s National Security Subcommittee. The most common refrain heard in response to any innovation in that system that I have heard in my almost 27 years therein is “we can’t do that because that’s not the way that things have been done.” It is created an endless cycle of failure and despair, a “broken immigration system.”

To their credit, President Trump and Jared Kushner (probably because they did not come from that failed system) are willing to imagine a better scenario: better for the system, better for the alien, and better for the American people. As they move forward, they will have to accept the fact that there are those who disagree on the question of where the national interest lies: with the new immigrant and his or her family, or with the American people as a whole, that immigrant included. It may not seem like a tough question, but just wait for the response.