Cato's Approach to Backlogged Visas: All Aspirations Should Be Honored

By David North on December 18, 2019

The Cato Institute's immigration policy regarding the backlog of green card applications is roughly this: Everyone who has successfully applied should be admitted.

That this would add nearly five million people in the current backlogs to the usual 1.1 million new legal immigrants a year — no other country in the world admits as many. This is not expressed as such, but it would be the consequence of adopting the policies published earlier this year in a document entitled "Immigration Wait Times from Quotas Have Doubled".

There is a bizarre unreality to Cato's policy recommendation. Where in real life is every aspiration fulfilled?

Everyone who has been in a high school play wants to be a Hollywood star — and all the guys on the high school's baseball team want to play in the big leagues. Each of them has, in a sense, filed an application during the high school years and gotten in line for such a future, but these aspirations are demolished 99.9 percent of the time.

But Cato wants all documented aspirations to have green cards to be honored. No alien is to wait more than five years, meaning the effective termination of numerical limits to immigration, a central part of public policy for more than 98 years. Cato also ignores the sound advice of William Cook, the former general counsel of the old INS:

Everyone in the various visa waiting lines knew full well that there would be extended waiting times for them when they applied; so complaining about that now, as if it is a sudden surprise or unfairly discriminatory, is totally without merit.

We are no longer a nation that needs a large supply of unskilled labor, as we were at the turn of the 20th Century. Congress, starting in 1921, recognized the fact that unlimited immigration was no longer appropriate. (That it joined this sensible decision on numbers with a racist country-of-origin limitation rule, favoring Western and Northern Europe and excluding just about everybody from Africa and Asia, does not mean that the concept of numerical limits was not valid.)

The U.S. government, unfortunately, has fallen into a system for handling immigrant applications that has created a lot of hope among millions of would-be residents of the United States. It has done so because it has adopted the idiot premise that if you are apparently eligible for a green card, and there is not one available right now, you go on a waiting list. I suspect no other nation in the world has such a policy.

The components of the 4,735,447 backlog, as of 2018, are shown in this useful table provided in the Cato report.


There are four obvious flaws with the current system that creates these visa backlogs:

  1. Lots of aliens wait a long time before they are admitted;
  2. We are getting an immigrant influx that is much older than in previous years;
  3. Every year the situation gets worse; and
  4. As the backlogs get larger and longer, more pressure is built to end numerical limitations.

There are plenty of different ways to cope with this situation other than simply abandoning the goal of a liberal, but limited, flow of immigrants, but Cato entertains only one approach — let them all in after five years.

One alternative, that I dislike, would be simply to say (through law or regulation): Sorry if you are more than five years away from a green card; given the current system your application has become null and void. That raw proposal would not help the image of the United States around the world.

A somewhat more attractive version of the above would be to give all who were tossed off the waiting list a refund of the fees that they had paid. Even better, double and sometimes triple the size of the refund could be given to those volunteering to leave the backlog. We could devise a formula in which those with a short wait time would be paid more for their departure from the line.

Another idea would be to eliminate the fourth family preference, sometimes called "the nieces and nephews relief act". This creates visas for siblings of adult U.S. citizens, and their spouses, and their kids. According to State Department data shown by Cato, fully 2,373,433 slots are in this category, more than half of the 2018 total of 4,735,447 aliens in the waiting queues. That would be hard to pull off politically, however.

What I propose, instead of any of these, is a system whereby the numerical ceilings continue to be observed, using a series of incentives, disincentives, and market mechanisms to handle the problem. This would involve the creation of the "backlogged visa market", a secure, high-tech approach that would do away with the backlogs over time and, simultaneously, assure us of a continuing flow of somewhat younger and somewhat more prosperous migrants than we are now getting. And everyone in the queues would have an opportunity to secure something from their presence there.

All to be described in a subsequent posting.