Beyond the Numbers: What Kind of Immigrants Should We Accept?

Blueprints for an Ideal Legal Immigration Policy

By Norman Matloff on March 1, 2001

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Norman Matloff is a professor at the University of California, Davis, where he has also served as Chair of the Affirmative Action Committee. A speaker of Chinese, he has been active in Chinese immigrant communities for 25 years.

One immigration reform organization has incorporated this question bluntly into its telephone number: 800-TOO-MANY. This summarizes the quantitative theme of most of the debate in recent years over our nation’s immigration policy. Critics of the policy believe the annual influx of immigrants, both legal and illegal, far exceeds our capacity to absorb them, from various fiscal, educational, social, environmental, and economic points of view. Supporters of current policy dismiss these claims, and recently the National Immigration Forum (clearly feeling the political tide has turned in its favor) has been suggesting that yearly immigration quotas be increased.

However, another viewpoint recently gaining currency is that we should reassess the mixture — socioeconomic class, education level, and so on — of our immigrant pool. Analysts such as George Borjas of Harvard University and Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies document a decline in average educational levels among immigrants to the U.S. during the last two or three decades. These analysts suggest that, whatever our immigration quotas should be, current immigration policy is simply selecting "the wrong kinds" of immigrants.

It is this issue that I will address here. I will first argue that, whatever utilitarian value is of our current policy, its centerpiece — family reunification — is not morally defensible. It is fundamentally failing to accomplish its stated premise. Yet I will argue that changing the socioeconomic/educational mix is not the right solution, either. I will explain, for example, why filtering immigrants on the basis of educational level would actually be of very little interest to our high-tech employers, in spite of their claims of a skilled labor shortage.

Family Reunification: Image Versus Reality

In 1995, the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform recommended abolishment of the so-called Fourth Preference category, used by naturalized U.S. citizens to petition for their adult siblings to immigrate. In doing so, they were calling for a rollback of the very centerpiece of modern U.S. immigration policy, and ethnic activist groups immediately accused the commission of heartlessly breaking up immigrant families.

The Fourth Preference tends to be considered an "Asian" issue in Congress,1 and will be considered from that perspective here. Asian-American groups were especially upset by the commission’s recommendations in 1995, as they had been when a similar proposal had been introduced back in 1982. Deftly exploiting the cultural stereotype of strong Asian emphasis on family ties, they were able to defeat these proposals in Congress.

Yet this romantic notion of reuniting separated members of families who long to see each other simply does not jibe with reality. Those who immigrate under family reunification laws typically are motivated by economic advancement, not family ties. The family connections merely provide them with a mechanism by which U.S. law will allow them to immigrate and achieve their economic goals. UCLA sociologist Min Zhou analyzes this in detail in Chinatown,2 noting that:

Immigration opportunities for prospective immigrants would be close to zero without family or kinship connections . . . To take advantage of family preferences in immigration laws . . . [earlier immigrants] they try every possible means to qualify their relatives for the immigrant categories . . . the Chinese could not just come on their individual initiative to achieve economic goals. They are . . . backed by their families.

Similarly, former Stanford University law professor Bill Ong Hing has noted that Japanese Americans have sponsored their relatives to immigrate at much lower rates than have Americans of Filipino, Chinese, Korean, and east Indian heritage, pointing out that3:

Japanese-Americans were in an excellent position to petition for relatives [to immigrate] under the 1965 [immigration law] amendment’s kinship provisions, yet they did not take advantage of this opportunity as other Asian American groups did . . . Japan’s relative economic and political stability appears to be the main reason . . .

Korean-American professor Pyong Gap Min of Queen’s College has made similar observations, writing that "Post-1965 Korean immigrants, like other Asian immigrants, are primarily economic migrants."4

One can hardly blame the immigrants for seeking economic betterment, and for taking advantage of the family-reunification categories to achieve these goals. But that is not the putative rationale behind those categories.

And one can certainly object to the calculated usage of the "family tie" image by self-appointed immigrant community "leaders" who in reality simply desire high levels of immigration in order to enhance their political clout.

For example, political power was one of the primary motivations behind the Chinese-American activists’ opposition to the 1996 welfare reform law, which greatly reduced immigrant eligibility for welfare5. Without welfare access, many fewer Chinese immigrants would sponsor their elderly parents, or even their non-elderly siblings, for immigration. To the Chinese political activists, the significance of this reduction in numbers of Chinese immigrants would be loss of political clout. This had often been stated privately —as one Chinese journalist put it, "We’ve got to keep immigration numbers up, so that we Chinese will have more rights" —and finally it was stated publicly, by the activists’ chief Washington lobbyist (and now Clinton appointee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission), Yvonne Lee6:

People are forecasting that [Asians] are the fastest-growing minority group due largely to immigration . . . But [given the new restrictions against welfare use by future immigrants] how many people are going to take the risk of sponsoring someone [for immigration] and what long-term impact will that have on our social status and political empowerment?

It should be clear to all but those with vested interests (ethnic community activists, immigration lawyers, etc.) that the family-reunification portion of our immigration policy, at least in its controversial aspect, the Fourth Preference category, is not living up to the noble sound of its name. Immigrants are using family relationships merely as a means to an economic end. Thus, the Fourth Preference category should be eliminated, and replaced by a completely different policy.

What should be the nature of this new policy? Should we, for example, introduce a "point system," which filters out applicants for immigration who have low levels of education and other indicators of social capital, as has often been proposed in the last year or two?

I would argue against such a change, first on philosophical grounds, and second because I will argue that the proponents of "education filters" have not really made good on their claims of economic benefits of such filters.

The philosophical aspect here concerns the non-elitist, even anti-elitist, tradition of America. We have never had an aristocracy, and (I believe not coincidentally) have never had a class-based immigration policy?7 There are many who would say that our reverence for the common man, and the opportunities for people of modest backgrounds to succeed, form the very basis for America’s strength. It is very unlikely that Bill Gates, a college dropout, could have developed his history-changing colossus in Europe, for example. Establishment of an elitist immigration policy would be anathema to a fundamental tradition and strength.

Those favoring a policy that imposes some kind of filter for education level contend that it is the most natural and equitable solution, for example, to the high-tech industry’s pressing demands to import foreign programmers and engineers. They say this would be much preferable to the current system, which locks the foreign high-tech workers into de facto indentured servitude and exploitability for five years or more.8

The problem with this argument for a point system is that the industry would have no interest in most immigrants who would be selected merely on the basis of education levels. Microsoft, say, would love to hire a 25-year-old H-1B who has very carefully defined software skills and who would work under indentured-servant conditions, but would reject most 40-year-old programmers and engineers who would immigrate here under a point system. Age discrimination is rampant in an industry that defines "Senior" positions as those requiring five years of experience.9 The 40-year-old computer programmer from the Ukraine would be just as unattractive to U.S. employers as his/her American counterparts of age 40.

Indeed, going beyond the specific issue of the high-tech industry, Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute has found that not only are immigrants on average poorer than natives, this discrepancy exists even among the well-educated: College-educated immigrants are on average 8 percent poorer than college-educated natives.

In fact, my own experience would suggest that the gap is even larger. I know a man who was a surgeon in China but is a janitor here, and another who was a laser physics professor in China but works as a bus washer here. Another friend was a famous sociologist in Poland, and a prominent founder of the Solidarity movement, but now makes a living here by buying old houses, fixing them up, and renting them out. I believe that if one restricted attention to college-educated immigrants who came to the U.S. as adults (and not under employer sponsorship), one would find that the gap is actually greater than 8 percent.

In other words, the well-educated immigrants selected by a point system would have much less fiscal/economic impact than what the advocates of such a system have assumed. Given the historically proven (if intangible) value of non-elitist social values and immigration policy, the advocates of a point system have not made their case sufficiently well to justify such a system. I submit that in searching for a replacement for the Fourth Preference category, a simple first-come, first-served world signup program would work as well as anything else.

But Should We Require English?

One relatively simple, and probably politically feasible, radical departure from traditional immigration policy that we should make is to require a rudimentary knowledge of English as a condition of a green card.

It may seem that by making such a proposal I am subscribing to something akin to an elitist point system after all, in spite of having rejected such a notion above. But I am actually proposing something entirely different. Under the Canadian point system, for example, an applicant for immigration receives a substantial boost in points if he/she knows English (or French) at the time of application. My proposal differs from this in two ways. First, I would require English of all immigrants (over age 10, say), not just give extra points to some applicants. Second, under my proposal, the applicant need not know any English at all at the time he or she applies for immigration. Instead, when his/her immigrant visa is approved, the approval would be conditional on the applicant then developing rudimentary knowledge of English within the next year. The applicant would be allowed to immigrate after demonstrating proficiency during that time period.

The skill level required would be minimal, just enough foundation to build upon once the immigrant comes to the U.S., but the consequences would be great. Even prominent immigration advocates, such as Antonia Hernandez of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, admit —indeed complain —that lack of English is one of the most serious economic obstacles faced by immigrants in their communities. Moreover, lack of English leads to employer exploitation; the immigrant workers must accept low wages, lack of health benefits, unsafe working conditions, and so on, because their linguistic problems limit them to work within the immigrant enclave.

In short, lack of English impedes the free market of labor for immigrants within the U.S. It also impedes the free market of political ideas. Just as employers exploit the immigrant workers economically, "community leaders" collaborate with the major non-English print and electronic media in those communities to exploit them politically.

For example, in San Francisco, the Chinese Sing Tao Daily and its sister outlet Chinese Radio, tailor their news coverage to the agenda of Chinatown community activists. During the 1999 mayoral election, for instance, the activists supported the incumbent Willie Brown. Sing Tao refused to run an ad for Brown’s challenger, Tom Ammiano, and in translating a San Francisco Examiner piece on Ammiano, Sing Tao removed paragraphs favorable to Ammiano. Since Chinese immigrants in San Francisco rely heavily on the Chinese-language media for news, largely due to their lack of English, they do not enjoy the benefits of having political candidates compete with each other for their votes.

Rather than being elitist, I would submit that my proposal would not result in large changes in the mix of immigrants we currently accept. Learning a minimal level of English would be a small price to pay for the immigrant visa people value so highly, and most would readily agree to such a condition.

I have been asked how would-be immigrants in poor third-world countries would learn English. My answer is that given the huge economic opportunity immigration represents to them, we would find that they are quite resourceful in learning English to meet the requirement for immigration. The would-be immigrants’ U.S. relatives could send them books and tapes to learn English, for example. Even the governments of the would-be immigrants’ home countries would have incentive to provide English instruction, say on the radio, because these governments depend so heavily on financial remittances from their nationals in the U.S. (e.g. China and Mexico).


1 Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography, by Adam Clymer, Morrow, 1999, p.443.

2 Temple University Press, 1992, pp.50-54

3 Making and Remaking Asian America Through Immigration, 1850-1990, by Bill Ong Hing, Stanford University Press, 1993, pp.106-107.

4 Caught in the Middle: Korean Communities in New York and Los Angeles, Pyong Gap Min, University of California Press, 1996, pp.28-29).

5 The immigrant-related provisions in that law have largely been rolled back since 1996.

6 AsianWeek, May 16, 1997

7 I must note here that my views are undoubtedly colored by the fact that my father immigrated to the U.S. from Lithuania in the early 1900s as a member of "the huddled masses."

8 The role of immigration in the computer industry is a highly complex topic. Policy in this regard is badly in need of reform too, but in my remarks here, I will limit myself to the issue as it relates to the proposed "point system," referring the reader to my other writings for in-depth analyses. 

9 See "Debunking the Myth of a Desperate Software Labor Shortage," Norman Matloff.