An Immigration Policy Needs Objectives

Blueprints for an Ideal Legal Immigration Policy

By Dan Stein on March 1, 2002

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There is an old saying that if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up where you’re headed. Those who are setting our nation’s immigration course should heed this cautionary advice. Virtually everyone, whether they support high or low levels of immigration, is dissatisfied with our current course for the simple reason that our immigration policies lack any real definable national interest objective

In fact, it is a mistake to discuss U.S. immigration policy, because the word policy implies that there is a well-defined goal and that we have established a set of legal mechanisms that will lead, hopefully, to fulfilling our objectives. While every public policy engenders wide disagreement, no other important national policy lacks an agreed upon goal.

Liberals and conservatives may argue heatedly about how big the defense budget ought to be, and what weapons systems our military should possess. But neither the most dovish Democrat nor the most hawkish Republican would disagree that the goal of our defense policy is to protect the security of the United States and its interests around the world. Similarly, people from across the political spectrum can easily define and agree upon the objectives of just about any important policy — education, the environment, health care, etc. There are a broad array of ideas, and vigorous disagreement, about how to achieve our goals in these areas, but at least everyone is clear about what the goals are.

It is highly doubtful that anyone in Congress, the body charged with setting immigration rules, can clearly define what the policy is meant to achieve. And even if someone has given enough thought to the matter to be able to articulate policy goals, it is highly unlikely that there would be any sort of consensus on those goals.

Absent a well thought-out rationale for immigration, platitudes and nostalgia have become the governing philosophy. As best anyone can tell, we have immigration today because we are a "nation of immigrants." Consequently, immigration seems to be defining the nation, by default, rather than the nation defining the role of immigration by a well-reasoned assessment of how this policy will serve its interests.

While policymakers seem to lack a vision of what U.S. immigration policy is meant to achieve, the American public, at least, seems to have a visceral understanding of what is at stake. The American people do have a sense of what type of country they want, and want for their children — and they are quite sure that the current policy is not leading us in that direction.

What the public wants is 1) a stable population size, 2) a healthy economy, and 3) a sense of national cohesion based on shared values and a common language. These rather straightforward goals are, perhaps, so obvious that they have been overlooked by the people who have been formulating our immigration policies for the past several decades. They do, however, constitute the sort of overarching policy objective (like protecting our national security is for defense policy) that might eventually lead us to a rational immigration policy. Different people will have different ideas about how these goals for our immigration policy should be met, but at least we will have a generally agreed upon goal to shoot for: achieving population stability.

The Census Bureau projects that U.S. population could approach a half a billion people by mid-century, and that nearly all of this growth will be a consequence of immigration and its ripple effect across the generations. The near doubling of U.S. population over the next 50 years will occur for two reasons. Our policy of family chain migration creates more and more people with immigration entitlements every day, and seemingly innocuous incremental increases in visas for special cases have, cumulatively, sent immigration levels skyrocketing.

Eliminating immigration entitlements for extended family members will put a brake on the primary force driving ever-higher levels of immigration. Limiting family-based immigration to the nuclear family, i.e., spouses and unmarried minor children, will prevent the immigration queue from growing each time a new person is admitted to the country. (It will also help us ensure a healthy economy, as will be discussed later.) Backlogs for extended family — like brothers and sisters and adult married sons and daughters — simply need to be abolished.

When we decide, for whatever reason, to admit someone as an immigrant, we will know exactly how many relatives will accompany (immediately, or in the future) the principle immigrant. When an immigrant with a spouse and two minor children is admitted, four visas from that year’s overall allotment can be deducted, and there will be no indeterminate number of other relatives who must be granted admission down the line. Ending family chain migration means that when we admit a family of four, our immigrant population will grow by four people, not by 14 or 40 people, depending on how many relatives decide to follow.

The second reason our legal immigration intake has doubled in the past 20 years is because there is no discipline in the system. Politicians "print visas" the same way they have printed money for years, without any sense of limitation and often as a kind of political bribery. The same sort of fiscal discipline that finally brought runaway budget deficits to heel must be applied to immigration. Runaway immigration is a result of a never-ending series of very "reasonable" increases in the number of visas handed out. Over the past 30 years we found ourselves granting a few more visas to help out one group, to be fair to another group, to protect still another, or to provide for the labor "needs" of a long parade of business interests. In almost every case these increases merited some consideration (just as almost every increase in the federal budget did during the years of large deficits), but no one ever seems to contemplate the cumulative effect.

The budget process is an exercise of deciding among competing priorities within a fixed spending limit. An immigration budgeting process would require Congress to make the same sort of deliberative choices. There may be a very good reason to admit more Serbians, or more Guatemalans, or more computer scientists in any given year, and Congress should have that flexibility. But there must be the imposed discipline of a budget, which requires increases in one area to be offset by reductions in areas that are determined to be of lower priority.

Immigration should contribute to our economic health. Everyone talks about the new economy and understands what is required to make it in the digital age. Yet as the bar for economic success has been raised, the skills level of our immigration flow has generally declined. While we do get some exceptionally skilled immigrants, more than a third of all the adults who are admitted to this country have less than a high school education. The result is that some 40 percent of immigrants find themselves in the bottom 20 percent of wage earners. Even more disturbing is the growing body of research which finds that this poverty is chronic, and tends to extend over several generations.

We cannot build a successful 21st century economy with an immigration policy that does not select people with 21st century skills. Eliminating the family chain migration model, which is driving population growth, will also allow us to rectify the mismatch between the needs of our economy and the skills of immigrants. About three-quarters of legal immigrants today are admitted under some family reunification provision, irrespective of whether the relative being admitted possesses any marketable skills.

Liberating ourselves of the self-imposed "requirement" that we admit certain people just because they happen to have a relative in the United States, will restore flexibility and responsiveness to the system, allowing us to select several thousand people based on the perceived needs of our economy at the moment. These needs are likely to change over time and, therefore, the admission criteria will need to be reviewed periodically. The various federal departments that have an interest in immigration policy — namely the Departments of Justice, Labor, Education, and the EPA — should serve in an advisory capacity in these reviews. However, the governing principle of immigration policy must be that broad-based domestic factors drive the system, not the demands of cheap labor and other special interests.

Immigration should promote a sense of national cohesion, based on shared values and a common language. Nations are more than just a collection of people living in geographic proximity to one another. A nation is more than a flophouse, a hotel, or a market. What make a nation is its land, its people and its institutions. It must contain either a close ethnic tie, or a shared commitment to certain principles anchored with some shared political history. Clearly, the United States falls into the latter category of nations.

As the United States has proven many times in the past, we have a remarkable capacity to incorporate people into our society, given the right set of circumstances and adequate breathing space. When evidence shows, however, that immigration is straining the common bonds that Americans consider essential, then those interests must be given primacy. As we look around the United States, with the proliferation of ethnic communities where people remain culturally and ethnically separated from the American mainstream, it is apparent that the threads that hold this large and diverse country together are being threatened.

Every policy needs a simple and definable purpose, and right now immigration lacks one. We will never fully reach a consensus about how to achieve the goals of immigration or any other public policy, but establishing national objectives will bring us a lot closer to a policy that most Americans feel comfortable with. Until we set goals, our immigration debates and the underlying procedures will continue to flounder, driven by the most narrow of special interests at the expense of the larger community.