Enlarging the Pyramid: Why Our Family-Based Immigration System No Longer Serves the National Interest

By W.D. Reasoner on April 3, 2013

There is an interesting article by Jeffrey Toobin in the April 1, 2013, edition of The New Yorker magazine. Entitled "Wedding Bells", it is a legal analysis of the two gay rights cases on which the Supreme Court recently held oral argument, and which it will be deciding this term.

One of the cases involves a California proposition banning gay marriage; the other relates to the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibits the federal government from recognizing, for any purpose, gay marriage even in states where it is legal.

In the article, Toobin observes, "DOMA also penalizes gay people by preventing them from receiving Social Security survivors' benefits, filing joint federal tax returns, obtaining green cards for their spouses, and enjoying hundreds of other rights and benefits." This, of course, got me to thinking about our present immigration system, in which familial relationships pretty much trump other forms of eligibility for lawful permanent residence. In fact, in many instances — for example, spouses — this kind of petition provides for immediate adjustment of the beneficiary, without need to queue up in the figurative visa quota line, waiting for your number to come up before you can become a lawful permanent resident alien.

One of the negative consequences of such a system is that it makes no judgments about the intellectual or skill sets of the family members being brought through petitions; nor even their capacity to earn a living without need to resort to hard-pressed and underfunded social services. While petitioning American citizens or lawful residents (yes, resident aliens can also petition for certain other family members) are obliged to fill out a form assuring that they will be responsible for sponsoring the family members, one of the many dirty little secrets of our immigration system is that the form is no more than a formality, and pretty much unenforceable. I know of no case in which a petitioning citizen or resident alien has actually been held to the terms of the sponsorship.

Another negative consequence is that this kind of system represents more than just "chain migration" as it is often called. One might more objectively look on it as a pyramid scheme. One beneficiary who receives his or her green card can, in turn, petition for many more family members. And they, once having received their own green cards, can do the same in turn. Thus, the pyramid grows ever larger at the bottom.

Other nations have increasingly made fundamental changes to balance their systems — not completely abandoning familial relationships as a basis for migration, but de-emphasizing their relative importance in the overall immigration scheme because these nations have recognized that their long-term national interest must involve looking forward, and bringing to their shores the best and brightest in all forms of endeavors.

We have not yet turned that corner. Our present immigration system authorizes and, in effect, encourages a form of unrestrained legal immigration based solely on the notion of family — a notion that is undergoing substantial change in our society.

In contemplating the immigration categories that presently provide means for bringing in family members, it is not necessary to take a moral position for or against gay marriage. It is only important to reflect on the inadequacy of a pyramid system that pays no attention to beneficiaries' abilities to meaningfully contribute to society, and to recognize that it may soon be subjected to additional numbers should the Court strike down DOMA.

Does a system so heavily weighted toward admitting the extended family — whether based on heterosexual or homosexual petitioners — best serve America's long-term interests? In a globally competitive world, I think not. Such a regressive system only ensures that we will slide further and further behind, while at the same time doing nothing to curb entry numbers to an assimilable level.