Open Doors Ploys #1: Playing with Ceilings on Legal Immigration

By David North on August 11, 2010

If a comprehensive amnesty program is not in the cards, which seems to be the case, one of the ways for Open Doors lobbyists to admit more migrants is to manipulate congressional ceilings on migration.

Perhaps it would be useful for those interested in controlling immigration to describe how this has happened in the past, and how it might happen in the future.

Numerical ceilings (or quotas, to use the old term) can be a pretty effective way of limiting legal migration. They were first used to control the number of immigrants in 1921, and extended to some nonimmigrant flows, for the first time, in 1990. Currently there are multitudinous separate flows of immigrants and nonimmigrants subject to caps of one kind or another. (How the lobbyists play with nonimmigrant ceilings will be examined in a future blog.)

The 1921 and 1924 immigration acts imposed the ethnocentric country-of-origin quotas that were in force until 1965. They were designed to meet two goals: 1) to cut overall immigration to the U.S., and 2) to allow substantial immigration from Northern and Western Europe, much less from Eastern Europe, and virtually none from Africa and Asia.

Strangely, from our current point of view, there were no numerical limits for legal immigrants from the Western Hemisphere. (In the '20s formal, legal migration from this hemisphere was minimal and did not attract much congressional attention.)

The numerical levels set in the 1921 and 1924 acts were considerably lower than the levels of unfettered immigration in the previous decades. Looking at two years when neither wars nor the Great Depression adversely affected immigration levels, we see, for example: 1910, 1,041,570 immigrants, and fifteen years later, in 1925, 294,314.

As an example, then, of the ceilings' seeming continuing effectiveness, some 40 years after they were first imposed, we had 94,127 quota immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere and 58,357 non-quota immigrants from there in 1961 according to the dusty 1961 Annual Report of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in my library.

But by 1961 the impact of the non-quota immigrants was growing. There were 96,104 quota immigrants that year (including a handful of Eastern Hemisphere types migrating from this hemisphere) and 175,240 non-quota immigrants. The latter grouping included more than 110,000 from the Western Hemisphere, some 32,500 immediate relatives of citizens, and about 4,000 refugees from Hungary, and from long-forgotten problems in the Netherlands and the Azores.

Thus, about 65 percent of the flow came outside the numerical limitations in 1961. By 2008 we had, according to the 2008 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics about four times as many immigrants as in 1961 but the proportion outside the (now different) numerical limits was roughly the same, about 60 percent. The most numerous of the numerically unlimited immigrants were immediate relatives of citizens. The 1965 Immigration Amendments substituted various family and employment allocations of visas for the abolished country-of-origin quotas.

There are a number of sub-allocations within the current overall ceilings; thus within the employment-based allocations, there are five subsections, EB-1 through EB-5. If, as often happens, all the slots in EB-1 (highly skilled "priority workers") are not used, then they "fall down" into EB-2 to be used there, and so on. (To see how this works, one can read this State Department document.) There were no "fall downs" in the country-of-origin system.

In this way most if not all of the allocated slots are used even if some sub-categories are under-utilized. Another theoretical scenario would have been that if the high-priority slots were not used by high-priority immigrants then the slots would remain unused, and the population pressures on the U.S. would be eased. This, of course, did not happen.

Thus, the mass migration people seek to: 1) lift existing ceilings where ceilings are inevitable, 2) define specific flows of migrants as outside the ceilings whenever possible, and 3) see to it that every last visa under a ceiling is used by some alien. In addition there are other systems used for refugees and asylees.

Refugees are people identified overseas and admitted as such. Asylees have many of the same characteristics as refugees, being able to argue successfully that they would be persecuted if they returned to the home country, but they do so in this country, after arriving as either illegal aliens or as legal nonimmigrants.

Asylees apply for that status at USCIS offices or make an asylum pitch before an immigration judge after having been picked up by ICE staff members for their illegal presence in the States.

The State Department each year estimates how many refugees the U.S. should receive the following year, and presents its recommendations to the Congress, which usually accepts the figure. Since the refugee identification, travel, and resettlement processes do not always work as planned, the number arriving is usually several thousand short of the allocation. In FY 2008, for instance, the State Department ceiling was 80,000 but there were 60,108 admissions, according to an Office of Immigration Statistics report.

I regard this part of the system as about the best that can be done in a difficult situation; the numbers involved in these flows cannot be, and should not be, established at a flat rate.

There used to be a ceiling on the number of asylees – not on the number to be so identified, but on the number who could adjust from asylee to green card status. The figure was 10,000 a year. The backlog at one point reached back for 14 years, and so Congress, in the Real ID Act of 2005 simply abolished the limit.

The entire amnesty program that was authorized in the 1986 IRCA legislation operated outside any numerical limits. All who were found to be qualified were legalized on a temporary basis, and most of them subsequently moved on to permanent legal status. The text of the current amnesty bill, HR 4321 introduced by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), has no numerical limits on its proposed legalization program.

The use and manipulation of ceilings, allocations, and quotas within the immigration process, as described above, is complex enough, but it pales in comparison to the way lobbyists have manipulated those systems within nonimmigrant flows, the subject of a subsequent blog.