Thursday, August 17, 2017
President Trump’s recent call for overhauling the legal immigration system suffers from serious racial implications and violations of basic family values. Earlier this month he endorsed the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act, which would eliminate all family reunification categories beyond spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents (reducing the age limit for minor children from 21 to 18), and would lower capped family categories from 226,000 green cards presently to 88,000. The prime relatives targeted for elimination are siblings of U.S. citizens and adult children of citizens and lawful residents. The diversity immigration lottery program, which grants 50,000 green cards to immigrants from low-admission countries, also would be terminated. The RAISE Act is essentially the Asian, Latino, and African Exclusion Act of 2017. Why? Because the biggest users of family immigration categories are Asians and Latinos, and the biggest beneficiaries of the diversity lottery are Africans.
The RAISE Act is an elitist point system that favors those with post-secondary STEM degrees (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics), extraordinary achievement (Nobel laureates and Olympic medalists), $1.35 to $1.8 million to invest, and high English proficiency. However, it fails to connect prospective immigrants with job openings and makes incorrect assumptions about family immigrants.
Promoting family reunification has been a major feature of immigration policy for decades. Prior to 1965, permitting spouses of U.S. citizens, relatives of lawful permanent residents, and even siblings of U.S. citizens to immigrate were important aspects of the immigration selection system. Since the 1965 reforms, family reunification has been the major cornerstone of the immigration admission system. Those reforms, extended in 1976, allowed twenty thousand immigrant visas for every country. Of the worldwide numerical limits, about 80 percent were specified for “preference” relatives of citizens and lawful permanent residents, and an unlimited number was available to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. The unlimited immediate relative category included spouses, parents of adult citizens, and minor, unmarried children of citizens. The family preference categories were established for adult, unmarried sons and daughters of citizens, spouses and unmarried children of lawful permanent resident aliens, married children of citizens, and siblings of citizens. Two other preferences (expanded in 1990) were established for employment-based immigration.
Asian and Latino immigration came to dominate these immigration categories. The nations with large numbers of descendants in the United States in 1965, i.e., western Europe, were expected to benefit the most from a kinship-based system. But gradually, by using the family categories and the labor employment route, Asians built a family base from which to use the kinship categories more and more. By the late 1980s, virtually 90 percent of all immigration to the United States – including Asian immigration – was through the kinship categories. And by the 1990s, the vast majority of these immigrants were from Asia and Latin America. The top countries of origin of authorized immigrants to the United States today include Mexico, China, India, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and El Salvador.
As Asian and Latin immigrants began to dominate the family-based immigration system in the 1970s and 1980s, somehow the preference for family reunification made less sense to some policymakers. Since the early 1980s, attacking kinship categories – especially the sibling category – has become a political sport played every few years. Often the complaint is based on arguments such as we should be bringing in skilled immigrants, a point system would be better, and in the case of the sibling category, brothers and sisters are not part of the “nuclear” family. Proposals to eliminate or reduce family immigration were led by Senator Alan Simpson throughout the 1980s, Congressman Bruce Morrison in 1990, and Senator Simpson and Congressman Lamar Smith in 1996. As prelude to the RAISE Act, the Senate actually passed S.744 in 2013 that would have eliminated family categories and installed a point system in exchange for a legalization program for undocumented immigrants.
Pitting so-called “merit-based” visas in opposition to family visas implies that family immigration represents the soft side of immigration while point-based immigration is more about being tough and strategic. The wrongheadedness of that suggestion is that family immigration has served our country well even from a purely economic perspective. The country needs workers with all levels of skill, and family immigration provides many of the needed workers.
A concern that the current system raises for some policymakers is based on their belief that the vast majority of immigrants who enter in kinship categories are working class or low-skilled. They wonder whether this is good for the country. Interestingly enough, many immigrants who enter in the sibling category actually are highly skilled. The vast majority of family immigrants are working age, who arrive anxious to work and ready to put their time and sweat into the job. But beyond that oversight by the complainants, what we know about the country and its general need for workers in the short and long terms is instructive.
The Wharton School of Business projects that the RAISE Act would actually lead to less economic growth and fewer jobs. Job losses would emerge because domestic workers will not fill all the jobs that current types of immigrant workers would have filled. In the long run, per capita GDP would dip. Furthermore, in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s forecast of large-growth occupations, most jobs require only short- or moderate-term on-the-job training, suggesting lower skilled immigrants could contribute to meeting the demand for these types of jobs.
The economic data on today’s kinship immigrants are favorable for the country. The entry of low-skilled as well as high-skilled immigrants leads to faster economic growth by increasing the size of the market, thereby boosting productivity, investment, and technological practice. Technological advances are made by many immigrants who are neither well-educated nor well-paid. Moreover, many kinship-based immigrants open new businesses that employ natives as well as other immigrants; this is important because small businesses are now the most important source of new jobs in the United States. The current family-centered system results in designers, business leaders, investors, and Silicon Valley–type engineers. And much of the flexibility available to American entrepreneurs in experimenting with risky labor-intensive business ventures is afforded by the presence of low-wage immigrant workers. In short, kinship immigrants contribute greatly to this country’s vitality and growth, beyond the psychological benefits to family members who are able to reunite.
The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights highlights the unity of the family as the “foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” for good reason. Our families make us whole. Our families define us as human beings. Our families are at the center of our most treasured values. Our families make the nation strong.
Bill Ong Hing is the Founder and General Counsel of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, and Professor of Law and Migration Studies, University of San Francisco