Immigration Reform: Let's Focus on Merit, Not Family Reunion

Posted: Jul 29, 2017 12:01 AM
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Close to 70% of our annual immigration visa quota is allocated to family-based immigrants. How did this happen?

The 1952 Immigration Act established a preference system to prioritize immigration applications for the first time in our nation's history. It gave first preference to applicants who had family already residing in the U.S. By the early 1960s, the call for immigration reform had gained wide support from the rebellious social culture as well as the success of the Civil Rights movement. After JFK’s assassination, the U.S. Congress took up the call for immigration reform by passing the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which is also known as the Hart–Celler Act—named after its two key sponsors, Senator Philip Hart of Michigan and Representative Emanuel Celler of New York. Senator Ted Kennedy also played a very important role. Without his support, this bill wouldn’t have passed.

The 1965 Act abolished the National Origins Formula that had been in place since 1921, and which had restricted immigration on the basis of proportion to the existing U.S. population. The Act kept the preference system introduced in the Immigration Act of 1952, which gave preference to family-reunion for relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents (a.k.a. green card holders), followed by employment-based immigrants, and refugees.

By the late 1960s, the influx of new immigrants from Europe had slowed down due to the post-war economic boom in Europe. Many Americans with European ancestry had already been in the U.S. for several generations by then, so there wasn’t a great need for family-reunion-based immigration. However, that was not the case for many people from Asia and Latin America. Until 1965, immigration from these regions had been restricted for more than a century. By removing the national origin quota system, the new immigration law opened the door for immigrants from these regions for the first time. Many immigrants took advantage of the family-reunion preference and sponsored their families to become legal immigrants in the United States.

Our immigration laws haven't changed much since the Immigration Act of 1965, which has had a profound impact on our nation’s demographics, culture, and politics. We continues to use the preference system set by the 1965 Act today, with family-based immigration utilizing 70% of the annual visa quota and employment-based immigrants using another 20%. In 1965, the U.S. population was 194 million, with 6% of its population, or a little less than 10 million people, as foreign-born immigrants. The Pew Research Center estimates that if we factor in the second- and third-generation offspring of immigrants, the post-1965 immigration wave has added 72 million people to the U.S. population, which is a little more than the population of France (67 million).

The overly emphasis on family reunion based immigration is problematic on three fronts. First, it’s unfair. It gives preference to blood relationships and family connections and discriminates against people who don’t have family connections, but do have knowledge, skills, and experiences and can contribute to our economy and be a productive citizen. The people our immigration system discriminates against today are the kind of people our nation has attracted since its founding. The current system also overlooks the fact that many people waiting in line for family reunion might qualify to migrate to America based on their merit but are instead stuck in the decade-long wait to be admitted on a family basis.

Second, this approach doesn’t serve our nation’s economic needs because (a) the quota for family reunion is not set based on labor-market demand; and (b) the visa preference hierarchy favors the old (parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents) and the young (children younger than 21 years of age) but discriminates against the most likely productive ones (people 21 years old or older, and siblings of U.S. citizens and permanent residents). The current system gives preference to people who are more likely to become financial dependents rather than economic contributors. Empirical evidence shows that after we started admitting immigrants mainly on a family reunification basis in 1965, we opened up the welfare system to immigrants.

Third, the emphasis on family reunion results in chain immigration, which exacerbates the long wait and backlog. Every legal resident or U.S. citizen can not only sponsor his or her nuclear relatives such as spouses and children, but also non-nuclear relatives such as parents, adult children, and siblings. The more family-based visas we hand out, the higher the demand will be, because everyone has some family members he or she wants to bring over, and those family members have their own family members, and so on. Chain immigration is the main driver behind the immigration population growth since the Immigration Act of 1965. Although it is understandable that immigrants want to reunite with their extended families, they made the choice to leave those families behind when they immigrated to another country. Demanding family reunion from the host country on humanitarian grounds makes the situation worse—and waiting for a decade or more for that reunion is far from being humane.

To address these issues, we should shift our immigration's emphasis from family reunion to merit. I'm not proposing to get rid of family reunion altogether. I believe, however, our immigration should be a merit-based system: an immigration system that gives higher preference to people who have skills and experiences to contribute, and to entrepreneurs who want to invest in America and create job opportunities for Americans—in other words, a much more flexible merit-based immigration program to meet our nation’s economic needs. We do not have to reinvent the wheel. Both Canada and Australia have established and successfully operated merit-based immigration systems for years. We can learn from their systems’ strengths and weaknesses. We're in 2017. We shouldn't continue to live with an immigration system established in 1965.