The Other Two Immigration Pillars

[ Posted Thursday, February 1st, 2018 – 18:51 UTC ]

I've been meaning to write about immigration specifics, but hadn't quite come up with a way to present the issues I wanted to address. Then I read a story in today's Washington Post and while perusing the comments came across an excellent set of questions for Republicans. This seemed the best way to launch into the subject.

The comment came from "babsy47," and here it is in full (or you can read it in context with the article and the other comments, if you prefer):

For those of you against family reunification and the lottery Visa program, a question... why? It appears that the marketed answer is that we should only have highly educated, skilled folks immigrate. Why? The highly skilled immigrant population (e.g. engineers and IT folks) receive very well-paying jobs. If the concern about immigration is that immigrants take good jobs from "Americans," why do you want the immigrants who take the best jobs? Do those against family reunification and the lottery want to live in a nation where our well-paying tech jobs are held by immigrants, while low skilled jobs are left to "Americans?" If so, why? Do folks believe that Americans are just too stupid or incompetent to get the education necessary to perform the well-paying tech job, so that we need to import high-skilled people so that native-born people can perform the low-paying, low-skilled jobs? Or that native-born folks should not move to where high-paying jobs are located -- only immigrants should move? I honestly do not understand the argument. To me, you want the immigrant work force to be unskilled and performing the low-paid unskilled jobs who create the market demand for products and services that enable creation of higher-paid, high-skilled jobs that can be performed by folks who enjoy the superior educational opportunities that we should be providing.

These are all excellent questions, focusing on two of the "four pillars" that President Trump and the Republicans are demanding action on (three of the pillars are GOP agenda items, the fourth is the DACA part of it). Democrats have been willing to bargain on DACA and border security, but these other two were really thrown in at the last minute. Indeed, Trump never indicated they'd be a priority until very recently. The comment only tangentially addresses family reunification, but I believe both are worth a conversation.


Family reunification

America currently allows in roughly a million legal immigrants each year. Of this total, roughly one-third is due to family reunification, from figures I've seen. Republicans used to crow about being the "family values" party, but you don't hear much of that kind of talk over this issue, do you? It's pretty hard to square "family values" with dividing families, after all.

The issue is a rather nuanced one, which has so far mostly gotten lost in the debate. The program covers certain family members, but not others. It is nowhere near as open-ended as Republicans are painting it, but then again it is more open than Democrats are usually willing to admit. Tightening up restrictions might be possible, even for progressives to accept. But probably not as tight as Republicans are now offering. As I said, this issue is more nuanced than many other immigration issues.

For those readers who are unaware, I have a full disclosure to make. I have sponsored an immigrant family member. She is now a proud United States citizen. She is also my wife.

When we got married, we began our journey through the immigration system. We filled out a mountain of paperwork (her "green card" application was a stack about two inches high of paperwork, and that is not hyperbole), we went through incredibly inefficient and callous procedures (we had to sit overnight outside the immigration office -- on the sidewalk, in a bad part of a major city -- just to be within the random first 40 in line for that day, which was at the time the only way to file your application), and three years later she got permanent resident status (a 10-year green card, which could be renewed indefinitely). A few years after that she was allowed to apply for citizenship, which involved another round of paperwork and another year or so of waiting until she was finally sworn in as a new citizen.

I mention all this to show that the process is not an easy one, and takes a whole lot of time and energy and an incredible amount of documentation. And she was second in line, so to speak. Immigration applications are prioritized by who you are and what relation to an American citizen you are. For family members, there is a clear pecking order. First is minor children of American citizen parents. Second is spouses (which was us). So even with our extended process, there were plenty of others in line behind us who had to wait for all of us in the top two categories to be accommodated.

These are also, from the reports I've read, pretty much the only two categories that Republicans want to keep open -- minor children of citizens, and spouses of citizens. Currently, the program allows a few other categories: adult children of citizens, siblings (adult or minor) of citizens, and adult parents of citizens. That last one can be split into parents of minor children (which Republicans may be open to) and parents of adult children (which they want to do away with). Contrary to many reports, uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins, nieces, and nephews (or any other even-more-remote relatives) are not currently covered at all.

Republicans do have a point, but it's nowhere near as dire as they like to paint it. If you are allowed to sponsor your adult mother, then she can be legalized and then sponsor her brother -- so your uncle could eventually get in, legally. This is why Republicans have picked up on language originally only found on white supremacist websites and are now calling it "chain migration." What they never mention is how long the links of that "chain" really are. It can take 15 or 20 years for a relative who is not at the front of the line (minor child or spouse) to get their green card. Add this up, and it's easy to see that entire clans aren't descending upon America en masse. It's a glacial process, folks.

But Democrats might want to think about some limits as well. I say this even having sponsored a spouse, although she might not fully agree with my sentiments (so please don't ascribe them to her!). I can understand wanting to bring over children left behind, even if they are adults. That serves family reunification. But beyond the traditional "nuclear family," at some point one has to draw a line. A minor child sponsoring his or her adult parent is entirely reasonable, but an adult child sponsoring an adult parent is a little less so. We do not currently allow grandparents to be brought in, so this would just be shifting the line one more generation downward.

Likewise, minor siblings seem reasonable to allow in, but adult siblings have always seemed kind of a stretch to me. This is really the least defensible category of current family reunification policy, and also the loophole which allows uncles, aunts (and, eventually, cousins, nieces, and nephews) eventually to be allowed in as well.

Of course, all of this has already been caught up in politics. Democrats reluctantly agreed to limiting family reunification for the Dreamer children, so that they can't sponsor their adult parents (who were the ones responsible for bringing them in illegally), although the deal worked out would have at least allowed the adult parents to stay on a temporary (but renewable) work visa. But there would never be a path to citizenship for them, as a punishment for breaking the law.

So far, that's as far as Democrats have been willing to discuss. Again, if this weren't such a charged issue politically, then Congress could be doing committee work and hashing out all the different categories with full public discussion, but that's not likely to happen. Instead, some last-minute deal may (or may not) be worked out without any adequate examination of family reunification policy.


Visa lottery

Again, let's start with some numbers. Out of 1,000,000 legal immigrants let in each year, 50,000 of them are due to the diversity visa lottery system. That is only five percent of the total. Ending the program completely would still leave 95 percent of legal immigration intact. Just to put it in perspective.

Also again, I have to start out with a personal take. My wife tried to get a visa through the lottery system, but back then it was quite different. She applied during a short window when she was heavily favored, but she never "won" the lottery. The "visa lottery" has changed significantly over the years, but during this time period the system that was in place ("Morrison visas") granted a whopping 40 percent of all the yearly visas to one relatively tiny island -- Ireland. Citizens of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were given two out of every five U.S. visas awarded in this lottery. This was couched in the idea of "making amends for those adversely affected by historic American immigration restrictions and abuses," but was really probably due to all those Irish-Americans in Congress. For whatever reason, for a short time, Ireland got the lion's share of the visas.

This still didn't do my wife any good, although Irish friends of hers did get visas through the lottery. The Irish Times just ran an interesting article on expatriates who had experience with the system, and those stories from the early 1990s show how generous the system was (for only a short window of time, but still...) for the Irish.

Nowadays, the visa lottery is geared towards countries with recent (over the previous five years) low rates of emigration to America. This gives a leg up to citizens of countries who may be getting shut out of other types of visa (again, the diversity lottery is only five percent of the total).

Trump and the Republicans are trying to paint this as some sort of governmental evil that needs abolishing or, at the very least, correcting. Which leads to all of those economic questions in the Post comment.

Why should high-skills immigrants be prioritized over low-skills immigrants? Indeed, even while Republicans are trying to shut down the visa lottery, they are also very quietly trying to massively expand visas that allow in high-tech workers. Search for the debate (what little of it there is, outside Silicon Valley) over H-1B visas to see the Republican position on this immigration policy area (which is currently: "triple it!").

Moving, as Trump says he wants to, to a merit-based system means the more skills a prospective immigrant has, the more desirable he or she is to America. This would, as the commenter pointed out, leave a lot of low-skills jobs empty while providing more competition at the top of the skills ladder for American workers. Again, this can be seen in Silicon Valley, which is why not everyone's so gung-ho to expand the H-1B program.

If Republicans had a magic wand they could wave to eliminate all illegal immigrant workers tomorrow, would they really use it? Are so many Americans clamoring for jobs picking produce in the fields and orchards? Do American consumers really want to shell out ten bucks for a head of lettuce? Some states actually tried passing Draconian immigration laws fairly recently, and what happened was that a whole lot of produce rotted in the fields, because there simply was no one willing to harvest it for the wages farmers were offering.

It wouldn't just be agriculture that was affected by vanishing all undocumented workers. The hotel industry would have a tough time hiring maids, the restaurant industry would also be hit hard, as well as all sorts of other industries (meatpacking, construction, etc.). With 4.1 percent unemployment, not a lot of working-age Americans are going to be flocking to do these jobs at the wages currently being offered. So employers would have to raise both wages and prices to adjust, or go out of business entirely. This would likely (caveat: I am no macroeconomist) lead to rampant inflation, as everything began to cost more and more.

At the same time, the high-skills workers would indeed be competing for the best jobs around. A little-known secret about the H-1B visa, though, is that it is a kind of (well-paid) indentured servitude. If, say, you're a computer programmer from India, you can get a job in Silicon Valley, but the company that offers to employ you files for the H-1B visa for you. This means that, once you get here, you cannot take a better job with another company because it would mean starting the process all over again. The visas are not transferable between employers. This means your employer has a hold over you and can thus pay you a lot less money than an American programmer -- one who has the ability to walk across the street and apply for a better-paid job at will. So the employer has a choice between a fully-qualified American, who will cost more money in wages, and who might leave at any time, and a foreigner who will accept much less in pay and who will be tied to your company legally for the ability to work at all in America. You can see the imbalance that already exists, and yet Republicans want to vastly expand this visa category.

In comparison, the diversity lottery allows in people who will do any job they can get and be happy for the opportunity. Just like the vast majority of immigrants throughout American history. The program only covers a miniscule amount of total immigration, and yet it has now become the prime target for Republicans. Donald Trump, of course, lies about the program. He presents it falsely in two ways. He seems to think that the countries in question are the ones that determine who emigrates to America. He continually says "they send us their worst," meaning the foreign governments decide which nefarious citizens to export. But this isn't how it happens at all, since it is up to the individuals (not their governments) to apply for the program. Secondly, Trump tries to make it sound like when you win the lottery you get a green card in the mail without having to go through any vetting or background checks. This is just completely wrong, because they have to jump through all the hoops all the other legal immigrants go through (remember that mountain of paperwork?).

To put it more plainly, the diversity visa lottery program is not the Mariel boatlift writ large. It just isn't. But it does allow immigration from countries with historically low rates, meaning a lot of folks from all those "shithole" countries Trump despises. A lot of black and brown people, in other words. The truly ironic thing is that if Norway (for instance) actually did have too few people emigrating to America, then they would be one of the countries that could benefit from the diversity lottery program, because each year it designates different countries depending on their immigration rates for the past five years. If America were truly suffering from a dearth of Norwegians, then they'd get an extra leg up by the very program Trump wants to eliminate.



I fully admit that I have my own biases through both my own personal experiences and through my political beliefs. And immigration is a pretty charged subject, these days -- although throughout American history, it has almost always been a charged subject (see: Alien and Sedition Acts, Chinese Exclusion Act, for just two quick examples).

Republicans used to be strongly against "comprehensive immigration reform," but these days they're trying to attach as many of their most extreme policy positions to what is necessary to fix DACA. They used to be for dealing with immigration in a piecemeal fashion, but now they say they will not vote to protect the Dreamers unless the bill becomes more comprehensive -- which means adding only their agenda items, and none of the Democrats'.

Democrats are in somewhat of a pickle because they've already tried a government shutdown over the DACA issue, and it didn't turn out very well for them. They probably won't be doing so again, in other words, although they may issue some rather empty threats. At this point, the only thing they may achieve is to shorten each successive continuing resolution on the budget, so that Congress becomes locked in to dealing with DACA and the budget and can't get anything else done. That much seems eminently do-able, at this point.

Some Democrats and (relatively) moderate Republicans are trying to essentially ignore the two toxic pillars of Trump's wish list. They're trying to reach an agreement just on the DACA fix and some border security money. This effort may be doomed to failure, especially when you consider that it'd have to make it through the House of Representatives.

The biggest hypocrisy in the entire debate comes from Trump, whose own resorts use low-skilled visas to import workers themselves. That's right -- if Trump really had his way and moved solely to a merit-based system, Mar-A-Lago would have to look elsewhere for dozens of workers. But he conveniently never mentions this fact during the debate.

No matter what the eventual political outcome, there needs to be a lot more public discussion and debate over making the radical changes to legal immigration that Republicans are now demanding. Republicans have long vowed that they were only against illegal immigration, and that they supported legal immigration wholeheartedly. That has now been shown to be a lie, quite obviously.

If Trump and the Republicans stick to their four pillars, Democrats are quite likely never going to agree to such radical changes in legal immigration. Trump could kick the can down the road by announcing another six-month extension of the DACA program, making the early-March deadline moot. Doing so would put the issue squarely into the midterm election season, but that was likely always going to be the case. But no matter what happens, the underlying issues are a lot more complex than is now being presented, which means if the GOP sticks to their four pillars, it makes it a lot less likely that anything will actually pass both houses of Congress any time soon.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


11 Comments on “The Other Two Immigration Pillars”

  1. [1] 
    neilm wrote:

    I remember getting to the 500 block on Sansome at 5am to be near enough to the front of the line to have a chance of getting in to see an immigration officer several times.

    Then I married my American wife, and we had to have a green card interview to ensure that the marriage was real (it also had to wait until I had TB test, AIDS test, etc. otherwise I wasn't eligible).

    With the medical all clear, suddenly I discovered a whole new part of the INS - that part that catered to American citizens - talk about "America First".

    We had an appointment, we came through a different door to the one for the riff raff, and we were sent to a nice lady in a nice office (instead of talking through bullet proof glass to a surly looking bureaucrat.

    The process took so long that we already had our first kid. We took him and his birth certificate along and put him down on the desk with all our paperwork. The lady burst out laughing and told us that this was going to be one of the shorter interviews she needed to do.

    11 years later I passed my citizenship exam and became an American.

    Great country.

    One thing we have to remember is how open America is to immigrants - it is far easier to get into America than the U.K.

    The process to get my wife British citizenship would be far more complex and far from guaranteed. She wouldn't even be allowed to stay in the U.K. for any more than a few months without one of us having a job that paid more than $25,000 or we could show $80,000 in liquid assets in a bank account.

  2. [2] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Now I KNOW we've got to tighten up immigration requirements!!

  3. [3] 
    neilm wrote:

    You're stuck with me CR :)

    And remember, my taxes are paying for your healthcare and retirement. And your defense, roads, clean air and justice system.

    You're welcome!

    Anyway, I always regard myself as more of a citizen than people who never even chose to be Americans but just were born to the right parents.

    What did the rest of you do to become American?


  4. [4] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    I’m sorry, but Republicans do not give a crap about illegal immigration and have only used it as a fear-mongering, race-baiting tool during campaign seasons to stoke their supporters. Republicans have long made it the focus during elections, but as soon as they get elected, they forget about it until the next election.
    Too many of their donors rely on the cheap labor that illegal immigrants offer for Republicans to do anything that would hurt their campaign donations.

    The only reason that it remains an issue now is that Trump never left the campaign trail — it’s the only part of his job that he actually enjoys! Staying in campaign mode means sticking to campaign topics.

    Fixing the immigration system would only serve to hurt Republicans during election season because it would remove one of their favorite hot button issues from the discussion. They don’t know how to campaign in ways that do not include attacking another group of people. And with acceptance of the gay community at record high percentages, Republicans cannot afford to lose immigration from their campaign season hate-arsenal.

  5. [5] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:


    What did the rest of you do to become American?


    I out swam millions of my kin to be the one that fertilized what was, for 9 months, my first apartment! That was some competition!

  6. [6] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:


    I can envision the whole scenario in my mind! You were convicted by your fellow Brits of the crime of 'Gross Ignorance of Economic Principles' and sentenced to banishment to the Colonies. Then, turned out that old 'Botany Bay' thing wouldn't work - seems the descendants of all those earlier British convicts no longer accept their own kind, and you wound up over here, where some sweet innocent American girl, having just watched Hugh Grant play the lovable Englishman in "Four Weddings and a Funeral", fell victim to your irresistible English accent, and the rest is history, or as you so aptly stated, "Now we're stuck with you".

  7. [7] 
    neilm wrote:

    My real story is out - you are 100% accurate CRS [6] ... or should I say


    Devin Nunes !!!!

    Yes, we now know that CRS was just Devin's alias, and we'd never have found out until he released the "Bonany Bay" memo!

    Don't worry, your secret is safe with us, you see, we have secret meetings we don't invite you or Michale to:

    Don't tell anybody!

  8. [8] 
    goode trickle wrote:

    For your reading pleasure...

    Boy oh boy... talk about cherry picking.

    Not nearly the Bombshell it is reported to be... The Dems should read their memo into congressional record today, just so the public can have both views.

    I smell a massacre coming.

  9. [9] 
    neilm wrote:

    Well nobody is talking about the SOTU address any longer. Surprise. The biggest speech of the year got one day of news time before somebody from 45's own party blasted it off the front pages.

    The Democrats will support the FBI and all that will be left in a couple of weeks will be the gut feelings in both camps:

    On the right: the FBI are attacking us

    On the left: the right are attacking the FBI to protect the White House

    Which of these two would you want your supporters to have internalized in November?

  10. [10] 
    Kick wrote:

    1, 3

    The process took so long that we already had our first kid. We took him and his birth certificate along and put him down on the desk with all our paperwork.

    Now that is one heck of an "Exhibit A."

    11 years later I passed my citizenship exam and became an American.

    Eleven years?! Thank you for your patience, sir.

    Anyway, I always regard myself as more of a citizen than people who never even chose to be Americans but just were born to the right parents.

    And so you should. If you passed the U.S. citizenship test, you obviously know more than a large swath of the morons in this country who are ignorant rubes with little knowledge of civics, history, spelling, punctuation, etc.

    What did the rest of you do to become American?

    The same as your progeny... ancestors simply got here a little sooner is all. :)

  11. [11] 
    Kick wrote:


    Yep... exactly this.

    The Tea Party sycophants and their ilk have nearly swallowed the GOP whole. Nearly... but they're not gone quite yet and should be making a comeback. Godspeed Mitt Romney. :)

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