Two Types of Admission Decisions: the Sensible Way and the American Way

By David North on June 1, 2011

When there are more people wanting to migrate to your country than slots for them, there are two ways of resolving that matter.

There is the sensible way, adopted by most of the rest of the world, and then there is the American way.

In the sensible way you may or may not have fixed ceilings, and sometimes the flow of migrants rises and sometimes it drops. But what is important is that when there are too many applicants for comfort, the admitting nation then tells some of them yes, and the rest of them no. There are no blanket rulings that assure everyone who is "qualified" can come. Admissions criteria change from time to time to regulate the flows.

The American way is different; when there are too many applicants for various ceilings and quotas, everyone who is regarded as qualified is given permission to enter, but the entry date may be delayed for years, or for decades, in certain cases. It reminds me of the seniority rule in Congress in the old days: if a member sticks around long enough the member gets to be a committee chairman. The system thus guaranteed old chairmen.

Similarly, the result of part of the immigrant-selection system is that we guarantee ourselves an older group of immigrants than we would get otherwise, while other parts of the same system, notably the family preferences, guarantee that the arriving migrants will be poorer and less educated than the resident population.

Congress writes the rules and Congress, though it modified it a bit lately, is devoted to the rule of seniority.

Is our immigration-selection process rational? Hardly!

Is it likely to change? Probably not.

While the problems with family preference and the associated high poverty levels are more significant than the deliberate aging of parts of the arriving immigrant population, the family preference-poverty link gets some attention from time to time, while the latter system does not. (For more on the poverty- and welfare-use levels of immigrant families, levels created by our nation's insistence on the family preference system within the immigration law, see the recent Backgrounder on welfare use by my colleague Steven A. Camarota.)

There are numerical set-asides, or preferences, for many, but not all, arriving immigrants. The system is complex as a control-freak Congress not only set specific numerical limits on five groups of relatives, and seven groups of workers, it also decided that in any given year no more than 7 percent of the numerically controlled immigrants could be admitted from a single nation; to make things still more complicated Congress worked out some "fall down" procedures so that numbers not used in a given category could be transferred to other categories. The mass immigration lobbyists wanted to make sure that none of the visas were, in their eyes, "wasted."

Two baseline numbers to bear in mind are family admissions, of 226,000 a year, sometimes not reached and sometimes exceeded, and admissions of workers (and their families) of 140,000 a year, often exceeded. Both of those flows, combined, are usually more than matched by the unlimited admissions of immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, usually over half a million a year.

It is within the numerically limited classes that the artificial aging of the immigrant population takes place, and this effect is much more pronounced in the major sending countries than in others. (Calculating the permutations and combinations of visa admission dates for the numerically limited is like playing three-dimensional chess on a structure that changes its shape every so often. A State Department document, the Visa Bulletin, provides the official score card every month; it runs to a dozen pages and is comprehensible only to the most studious.)

Basically, the problems are that there is more demand for some visas than the supply, and the demand is spread quite unevenly around the globe.

When you put those two factors to work on each other, you get the most pronounced of the backlogs, and that distinction goes to a group of aging Filipinos. If you are a brother or sister of an adult U.S. citizen, and if you live in the Philippines, and if you successfully filed for an (F-4) family preference visa before April 8, 1988, you are about to get you entry papers – after a wait of 23 years. The government does not publish age data for these migrants – though it should – so we can only say that they are 23 years older than they were when their U.S. siblings asked them to come to the country. Were they, on average, 25 then or 30? If so they are now 48 or 53, and thinking about retirement.

There are other long-in-tooth arriving populations with waits nearly as lengthy; there are married Filipino sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, certainly at least in their twenties when they signed up, who have waited more than 19 years, and the youngest of them must be well over 40 when they arrive. There are also long waits for some relatives and some employment-based people from China, Mexico, and India.

One group is of particular interest: the H-1B visa holders who, unlike the others, can stay legally in the U.S. while waiting for their green cards because of an employer-devised clause in the INA. The waiting time for these people is now nine years – and the workers must feel stuck in their jobs because if they switched to other H-1B employers, which they can do, the process would have to start all over again, if they want to become permanent residents.

The mass migration people argue that the backlogs should be eliminated by letting in all the waiting people. I would take a more nuanced (and restrictive approach) and would simply stop issuing visas to three of the four classes of numerically limited family members: the unmarried sons and daughters, the married sons and daughters, and the siblings of U.S. citizens, and would let the current system keep operating until a generation from now when all those people now on the waiting list had either died or had come to the U.S. for their retirement.

For the employment categories, I would set up a system by which people low on the waiting list could buy better places in line from people ahead of them. No relatives of U.S. citizens or resident aliens would be hurt by this, and the arriving workers (many of them professionals) would be richer, and perhaps more able, than those they replaced in the queue.

Maybe each visa holder purchasing a better place in line should have to buy two slots, so that the line would move more quickly.

Scandalous notion I am sure, but it is a way to change the mix of arriving immigrants, making that mix richer and younger than it would be otherwise. It also would not increase the number of arriving immigrants, which is a good thing.

But this would be asking Congress to terminate that part of the seniority system that is included in the immigration law, so it is unlikely to happen.