An Autopsy of the Senate Immigration Bill, Pt. 3: The Question of Limits

By Stanley Renshon on February 24, 2014

Read Part Two

Most immigration discussions totally avoid the subject of immigration limits or assume there are no limits to the number of immigrants the United States can or should take in every year.

A recent Washington Post editorial, for example, complained about what it called an "absurdly long backlog" that exists "because of annual limits that are out of sync with demand."

Well, yes, almost any limits of immigration to the United States will be out of sync with demand.

Moreover, the Post notes,

[T]he Senate opted to create more opportunities for highly qualified workers and a merit-based system that assigns points to visa seekers with advanced education, fluency in English, and other attributes that are critical to sharpening America's competitive edge in the global economy. Those are sensible steps, but they needn't have come at the expense of family-based visas. (Emphasis added.)

Oddly, the last paragraph of that editorial notes that "America's percentage of foreign born residents is already hovering near its historic high." That percentage is 13 percent, the highest level since 1920. Of course, the absolute numbers are much higher and a few countries and regions dominate the incoming immigration stream — an issue that further complicates assimilation.

The Post editorial ends by asserting that "By clearing the backlog of green card petitioners, the Senate bill is likely to drive that proportion higher still. In the short term, that may lead to social tensions of the sort that have attended spikes in immigration throughout American history. In the long run, it will contribute to the nation's vibrancy and wealth."

This is an empty reassurance, devoid of any analysis beyond the author's wishful thinking.

At some point, anyone interested in immigration reform is going to have to have a discussion about overall immigration limits and proportions. What is a reasonable, acceptable, and viable number of immigrants?

The country has not had much of a real discussion on this issue, but needs to do so. And that discussion needs to go beyond the true — but analysis-avoiding — talking point that we are a "nation of immigrants."

If any future immigration reform bill is going to live up to its intentions, it will have to make choices — sometimes hard choices. Painless choices are an illusion.

The Senate immigration bill tried to avoid any real trade-offs by simply saying yes to almost every special interest request.

Want more unskilled workers? Yes, we'll add more such visas.

Want more skilled, hi-tech-workers? Yes, we'll add more of those kinds of visas.

Want more seasonal agricultural workers? Yes, we'll add more of those kinds of visas.

Want to clear the immigration "backlog" (really a waiting list) of family-sponsored and employment-based preferences by changing the caps that Congress mandated of 226,000 and 140,000, respectively? Yes, we'll add unlimited number of visas to clear this backlog now estimated at over 4.4 million persons. Of course, those four million new legal immigrants, coupled with the millions receiving amnesty will be able to sponsor their extended family members, thus further pushing yearly immigration numbers up past the roughly one million a year number that is currently the case.

How many immigrants are too many, overall, or within specific categories like high-tech workers or married relatives? How many immigrants are too few in any or all of the many immigration categories we have? Advocates of the Senate bill focus on the many immigration categories and repeat "Not enough!" But overall numbers matter greatly, and the rationales for more immigrants in certain categories are unclear and the evidence used to buttress the claims that more are needed is mixed.

We need a national discussion of immigration numbers.

Next: For Real Immigration Reform, Beat the Clock