Our 89-Year-Old, Self-Created Booby Trap in Immigration Policy

By David North on February 17, 2010

Four score and nine years ago our forefathers did something doubly stupid.

Not only was the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 clearly racist with its country-of-origin quotas, it also introduced a structural defect into our immigration system that has haunted us ever since.

The country-of-origin quotas were wiped out with the Immigration Act of 1965 but the lingering structural defect, one complicating life for restrictionists, is still here, and still is largely ignored.

Further, it is a defect that I think is unique in the world; no other nation has followed our lead – thank goodness – in this regard.

In most nations the parliament draws up general immigration policy guidelines for their immigration-management agencies and then lets the minister in charge implement them as best he or she can. If the policies are unpopular, the minister loses his or her job, and if they are really unpopular the party in power morphs into the party in opposition.

Would-be immigrants are screened, sometimes slowly, and either they are admitted or they are not.

It is a democratic approach, but one never used in this country.

Instead our Congress makes two sets of decisions: 1) what kind of people do we want to admit, and 2) how many of them do we want to admit. In some cases, such as the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, there are no quotas or ceilings, but most immigrants, in the words of the Department of Homeland Security, are "numerically limited."

What happens when the immigrants Congress wants in a given category exceed the numerical limit set by the Congress? Well, Congress does to the would-be migrants what it does to its own would-be committee chairman. Just as seniority almost always picks the (majority party) member to be the chair, so a waiting line is created for the would-be migrants. It is sometimes called a backlog.

Now the backlogs are clearly a problem for those who have the right qualifications and cannot migrate. The problem is particularly acute for those who are still in the home country and have not figured out how to get to the U.S., probably on a nonimmigrant visa or perhaps illegally, while they are waiting in line.

The problem I am writing about, however, relates to immigration policy, more broadly. What we have is a continuing, built-in booby trap.

If there are many qualified would-be immigrants and they have to wait for years for legal admission, their friends, their landsmen, the leaders of relevant corporate or ethnic groups, and of course, the immigration bar all attack the backlogs and demand that legislative arrangements be made for the admission of those qualified people on the long waiting list.

The country-of-origin admissions system was seriously weakened by the backlogs, notably those in Southern Europe, and that facilitated the passage of the 1965 Act. That act, however, just set up a new set of backlogs, based on different criteria.

Backlogs, in short, lead the Open Borders advocates to clamor for changes in the immigration laws, to make them more generous.

While there were enormous policy differences between the Acts of 1921 and 1965, both unwittingly facilitated this structural problem.

I was reminded of this recently when I saw the most recent of those monthly notices from the Visa Office about the size of the various backlogs; I noticed the data on the longest of them, that of the Family 4th in the Philippines. These are brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, and their minor children (the nieces and nephews).

According to the Visa Bulletin, if your petition had been approved before September 1, 1987, you can now use it to migrate to the U.S. That's a period of more than 23 years, and everyone involved is 23 years older than they were when the document was approved.

The numbers waiting are as large as the years are long. According to an earlier Visa Office Bulletin, that of March 2009, there was a grand total of 2,723,352 people waiting overseas with approved visas. In addition there is an uncounted, but presumably large, number of would-be immigrants already in the U.S., similarly with approved petitions.

Of these 2.7 million, fully 1.2 million are in the brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews category, which by law (and by common sense in my eyes) is the least of the family preferences. The numerical limit on this class is 65,000 a year, so it would take more than 18 years to clear the backlog – even if not one single additional petition were approved.

What should we do with these backlogs? That's an excellent question and the subject of a future blog.