Setting Priorities in Immigration Policy

By Susan F. Martin on March 1, 2001

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Susan F. Martin is Director, Institute for the Study of International Migration, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.


For most of U.S. history, the American public has been ambivalent about immigration. Proud of their own immigrant forebears, Americans tend to worry that the current wave of immigrants is different and, hence, less likely to adapt to their new society. While such fears have not proved justified in the past, the integration of immigrants is by no means an easy, straightforward process. The burden of integration is largely on immigrants themselves, who must often learn a new language, new skills, and new civic values. But U.S. society must also adapt to the presence of newcomers who present opportunities as well as challenges for the broader society.

Immigration produces both winners and losers. Much of the recent research on its impacts agrees that the nation as a whole benefits from the presence of immigrants, who add as much as $10 billion annually to the national economy, a small but still tangible contribution. Although not an answer to the looming Social Security crisis, immigration slows down the aging of the population and increases the ratio of workers to retirees (at the same time, increasing the number of dependent children to workers). Immigration contributes to U.S. competitiveness in a global economy, allowing multinational corporations to integrate their operations, move executives and managers from one location to another, and recruit skills, when needed, from a global labor force.

Because of the geographic concentration of immigrants and their skills distribution, the costs of immigration tend to be felt most acutely in the communities with large numbers of immigrants and by the workers who compete directly with new arrivals for jobs and economic advancement. States and localities with large numbers of immigrants often experience significant financial costs (for example, for education) that are not offset by increased tax revenue (much of which flows to the federal government). Similarly, highly concentrated immigration poses challenges to communities in terms of land and water use, transportation, infrastructure development, community relations and a host of other issues generated by any type of rapid population expansion.

Immigrants tend to be concentrated at the top and bottom of the educational ladder, with about one-quarter exceeding average U.S. educational levels and about forty percent having significantly lower levels. While immigrants do not compete with most Americans for jobs, having greatly different skills, they do affect the employment and earnings of those U.S. residents who most closely resemble immigrants in their educational attainment. Of most concern is the negative impact of new immigrants on those with less than a high school education; the most adversely affected population is the immigrant community already resident in the United States, particularly those who compete with new arrivals willing to work at lower wages. During a booming economy with a tight labor market, the impacts may be minimal, but any economic decline will likely hit unskilled immigrant workers very severely.

In adopting policies for the future, policy makers should take into account these complex impacts, generally positive at the national level but potentially burdensome for specific communities and segments of the population. These research findings argue for continued immigration but a redirecting of priorities to enhance the benefits while addressing many of the costs. Even more so, they argue for new immigrant policies to help ensure the full integration of the millions of immigrants already in the United States, too many of whom are living in poverty with too few opportunities for advancement.

The findings and recommendations that follow reflect my five-year experience as Executive Director of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, which issued its report on legal immigration policies in 1995. My recommendations differ in some respects from the Commission’s, reflecting changes in the economy that have occurred in the past five years as well as worsening inefficiencies in the immigration system.

There is no a priori, correct number of legal admissions. The research does not point to a magic number of immigrants whose admission, if above or below that number, serves or impedes the national interest. The impact of immigration, as shown, depends largely on the skill levels of those admitted and where and in what concentrations they settle. One million immigrants spread equally throughout the country will have vastly different effects than one million immigrants settled in one county. The effects of the same number of newly arriving immigrants may be positive during an economic boom and problematic during a recession. Immigration policy should retain sufficient flexibility to respond to changing situations. The ceilings established for immigrant admissions should be re-examined and, if needed, revised at least at three to five year intervals. The Executive Branch should take the lead in revising admission ceilings, based on statutory criteria and in consultation with Congress. Such other immigration countries as Canada and Australia undertake periodic reviews of their admission targets.

The priorities for admission should drive numbers, not artificial ceilings. At present, U.S. policy takes a top down approach; the Congress establishes a ceiling on overall admissions and then allocates sub-ceilings to a large number of different categories, many of which have far greater demand than supply of visas. The overall ceiling may be pierced if demand within the category of immediate relatives of U.S. citizens exceeds a pre-specified level but waiting lists are established to handle the other excess demand. Per-country ceilings also serve to impede timely admission for members of some nationalities, regardless of the closeness of the applicants’ ties to the United States or the economic role that the immigrant may play. The result is a system managed by backlogs rather than national interests, with some high-priority applicants waiting years before a number is available. Some backlogs are so lengthy that they strain the credibility of the immigration system. The waiting time for siblings of adult U.S. citizens from certain countries already exceeds 20 years.

Family reunification should continue to be the cornerstone of U.S. immigration policy, with highest priority going to the spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. Sufficient slots should be available to admit all spouses and minor children within one year of application. Such a policy has both humanitarian and practical benefits, recognizing the important role that the family unit plays, for example, in child development, stabilizing communities, and increasing household income when two wage earners have access to legal work. These benefits accrue regardless of whether the petitioner is a citizen or permanent resident; hence, the national interest is not served by differentiating the right to nuclear family reunification on the basis of citizenship. Provisions should be made as well for admission of other close family members who are dependent on the petitioning U.S. resident—for example, parents and adult children who are financially dependent on their parents. In these cases, the government should continue to require a binding affidavit showing that the petitioners are able to fulfill their financial commitment. The annual number of applicants in these categories is unlikely to exceed manageable levels. The large waiting list today is a one-time phenomenon, composed primarily of the spouses and minor children of immigrants legalized under the Immigration Reform and Control Act, whose amnesty pertained only to the principal applicant and not his or her family members. Family categories that do not involve a close, dependent relationship, particularly siblings of adult U.S. citizens, should be eliminated following a brief transition period. Certainly, no new applications should be taken for these unmanageable categories. As stated above, the sibling category strains credibility because of the exceedingly long waiting list, numbering more than 1.5 million. At the current ceiling on sibling admissions (65,000), it would take about 25 years for everyone in the backlog to be admitted. The median age of the principal applicants on admission is already in the 50s, reflecting the lengthy waiting times. Moreover, in an era of eased international travel and communication, admission to the United States is no longer needed to enable siblings to maintain close contact with each other.

Employment-based categories should provide enhanced opportunities for the admission of highly skilled foreign workers, including executives, managers, researchers and professionals, while instituting meaningful incentives for companies to recruit and train U.S. workers whenever possible. In contrast to family categories that are heavily oversubscribed, the 140,000 visas available for employment-based admissions are significantly underused, largely because of administrative barriers. At present, it can take as many as five years to gain approval from the State Employment Services, Department of Labor and Immigration and Naturalization Service, a timeline that makes no sense relative to typical hiring practices. Many businesses hire workers on temporary visas while going through this labyrinth process, putting additional pressures on ceilings within the nonimmigrant categories, but some are finding it impossible to complete all steps within the time that the temporary visa is valid. An alternative to labor certification is needed, one using market forces rather than bureaucratic inefficiencies to test the validity of the employer’s request. The Commission on Immigration Reform proposed such a model, later adopted in part for the H-1B temporary worker program. Employers would attest to paying prevailing wages and otherwise abiding by recognized labor standards and they would affirm their need for the foreign worker by paying a significant fee that supports training of U.S. workers in high demand fields.

The protection of refugees worldwide requires sustained leadership from the United States, with a generous and principled resettlement and asylum program serving as an important but by no means exclusive ingredient of such leadership. In the past decade, the United States has taken significant steps to reorient its refugee admissions program and asylum system away from serving Cold War ideological purposes and towards serving broader humanitarian and protection purposes. These promising trends include improved training and professionalization, use of a broad array of human rights information, and greater consultation with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on refugee populations requiring the protection or durable solutions to their plight through resettlement. To encourage other nations to follow our lead, the Executive Branch should establish numerical targets for future refugee admissions. There should be no statutory cap on refugee admissions, however; the refugee system should retain sufficient flexibility to respond to new crises, both in directing its priorities for admission towards those most in need of protection as well as in setting annual admission levels.

These recommendations show a distinct preference for admission of foreigners, to the extent possible, in the permanent legal entry categories. There is a role to be played by temporary admissions category. Certainly, many foreign workers seek temporary assignments in U.S. universities, research centers and businesses with no intent to remain in the United States. Multinational corporations often move executives from one location to another, with no intent to relocate them permanently. Temporary protection of persons fleeing conflict may be justified, at least until it becomes clear whether they will be able to return home in safety or will require more permanent solutions. Over reliance on temporary categories has risks, however. As experience has taught, it is difficult to remove temporary workers when their labor is no longer needed. Moreover, while in temporary status, the workers are more vulnerable to exploitation, particularly if the employer holds their ability to remain in the country at hand.

The genius of U.S. immigration policy throughout our history has been the opportunity afforded to immigrants for full membership, including but not limited to citizenship. In fact, establishing credible priorities for the admission of newcomers is merely the first step in building an immigration system that benefits the country. Even as such reforms are made in the legal admissions system, greater policy attention should be focused on immigrant policy, aiming at the full social, economic and civic integration of new immigrants. Significant numbers of immigrants live in poverty, unable to benefit from the great economic opportunities offered in this country. Demand for English language instruction exceeds supply of affordable classes in many locations. Even with the greatly increased number of naturalization applications, many immigrants still experience barriers to citizenship resulting from administrative delays and lack of access to civics and language training programs. Communities receiving significant numbers of new immigrants require help in responding to the needs of their new population.

The principal responsibility for helping immigrants integrate rightly rests on those who seek their entry, generally the families and businesses that sponsor them and the communities in which they reside. Historically, this process has worked well, with local educational and religious institutions, as well as businesses, supporting language training, civics education and mutual assistance. The federal government must play a role as well, particularly since immigration policy is a federal responsibility.

An important step that the federal government can take to increase integration is to reverse the welfare reform provisions adopted in 1996 that base eligibility for safety net programs on citizenship. These provisions leave many immigrants without access to food stamps and other programs that help the working poor. They also make false and invidious distinctions between citizens and legal immigrants. They are false in that many immigrant-headed households include U.S. citizen children who are also adversely affected by the new rules; they are invidious in implying that immigrants — who pay taxes, serve in the military and otherwise contribute to the country — are any less deserving of assistance than citizens.

It has become something of a cliché to say that immigration policy should serve the national interest. That makes it no less important a point, however. The United States has benefited greatly from immigrants who contribute economically, scientifically, culturally, and in many other ways. Nevertheless, as with most goods, the benefits of immigration come at a cost, in this case to specific communities and populations. While immigration policy reform can help mitigate some of these costs, the millions of immigrants already in the country require attention as well. They and their children are the citizens of tomorrow.