Call it progress: When US President Donald Trump unveiled a plan in May to reform the US immigration system, he said that the number of immigrants granted green cards each year would remain unchanged. That is a U-turn from his 2017 endorsement of a bill that could have halved annual admissions, currently running at about 1.1 million. The new plan promotes a merit-based system that privileges skills and education over extended family ties, but it is short on detail, lacks political support even from US Republicans and is at odds with the administration’s record of imposing new restrictions on skilled immigrants.
This ambivalence and disarray, although more pronounced in Trump’s administration, exemplifies the approach that the US has taken to the issue for decades. Even as the country grows more dependent on new arrivals, its policies toward immigrants — skilled and unskilled, legal and illegal, refugees and asylum seekers — remain confused and ill-considered. Change has rarely been so urgently needed.
It is true that the US has undergone a significant demographic shift in the past few decades. In 1970, only 4.7 percent of its inhabitants were foreign-born. By 2017, the number had risen to 13.6 percent, close to its historical peak of 14.8 percent in 1890.
However, the country needs more immigrants of every kind. It needs innovators, entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers and other skilled workers for its economy to thrive. It needs crop-pickers and healthcare workers to do jobs that native-born Americans generally do not want. It also needs to resolve the status of more than 10 million undocumented residents. As the world’s most powerful democracy, whose strength and legitimacy depend on living up to its values, it has compelling reasons to fix its broken systems for aiding asylum seekers and refugees.
The starting point for thinking about these challenges is to recognize how important immigrants are to the US economy. According to the New American Economy Research Fund, immigrants and their children established nearly half of today’s Fortune 500 companies. In 2017, they made up about 17 percent of high-skilled working males. In Silicon Valley, more than half of the workers in fields combining science, technology, engineering and mathematics — and an even higher proportion of software engineers — were born overseas.
The importance of immigrants is likely to grow in the digital age. There is good evidence that high-skilled immigration promotes innovation. Immigrants are almost twice as likely as the native-born to start new businesses, and in 2014, they made up about 20 percent of all entrepreneurs. Figures compiled by Bloomberg show that “states with the greatest concentration of immigrants create the most jobs and biggest increase in personal income.”
Meanwhile, demographics are making the US’ needs more acute. A country with fewer babies and more old people has greater need of immigrants. Last year, the US population grew at its slowest pace since 1937. Nearly one-fifth of states have lost residents during the past two years. Alaska, Maine and Vermont — along with numerous cities and towns across the country — are even offering bounties to newcomers.
Other things equal, this means slower economic growth, and an aging workforce pushes the same way. Fewer workers supporting more retirees would put US Social Security and other public pension plans under further strain.
In short, the US cannot afford an immigration system that saw its last major overhaul half a century ago.
By any measure, the US’ formal immigration processes are confusing and often arbitrary. For instance, every year 50,000 visas are allotted by lottery (last year, nearly 15 million people applied). The US allocates 140,000 visas each year to employment-based immigrants — only about 12 percent of the total admitted in 2017. Two-thirds were granted on family ties.
On balance, it makes sense to prioritize an increase in skill-based immigration — as Trump proposes — where the economic benefits are greatest and most obvious to current citizens, but how might this be done?
Consider the system as it stands. Like most US immigration procedures, the road from bright student to happy permanent resident is tortuous.
Assume you got a student visa. Upon graduation, you are entitled to a period of paid practical training. If your goal is to stay in the US, you find a company to sponsor you for an H-1B visa as a specialized worker.
Uncle Sam only allocates 85,000 of these annually, so you have to pray that yours is picked in a lottery. This year, 201,011 petitions were submitted. If you are one of the lucky ones, your petition and visa must then be approved. Retaining your visa depends on retaining your job. Hold onto both and you can apply for a green card.
However, there is a per-country cap of 7 percent of allotted visas each year. If you are from a high-demand country like China or India, you are in for a long wait — as of April last year, it amounted to 17 years for Indians with bachelor’s degrees and, perversely, 151 years for those with advanced degrees.
No wonder Canada has made the US process a selling point for its own visa program, or that Australia came out ahead of the US in a survey of national attractiveness to talented migrants.
The Trump administration seems determined to make things worse. Student visa issuances fell from about 678,000 in 2015 to 390,000 last year. Even though the law regarding H-1B visas has not changed, the denial rate surged from 5 percent in 2012 to 32 percent this year, including for seasoned petitioners such as Amazon.com.
Proposed regulations would put new limits on the time that students can stay in the US, strip work permits from spouses of H-1B holders and narrow eligibility for work visas.
In fairness, the still-undefined points system Trump has aired could be an improvement. Similar systems in Australia, Canada and New Zealand balance the need for high-skilled workers with longer-term objectives, and create a more transparent and objective process.
A comparable approach could be applied to semi-skilled workers in agriculture, healthcare or other fields in demand. Among other benefits, such an arrangement could avoid the per-country caps that have kept the US from turning China and India’s brain drain into the US’ gain.
However, the transition faces a big obstacle: What to do about the nearly 4 million immigrant petitions, most of them family-based, already on file? To keep faith with those applicants, give them the option of staying in the existing lengthy queue or submitting an application under a new system that awards some points for family ties, with the prospect of a speedier entry.
The US could afford to ease the overall backlog — so long that applicants are dying out of the system — by increasing the number of green cards per year to 1.4 million or so. Unfortunately, Trump’s approaches to the other huge challenges facing the immigration system are less coherent — or even counterproductive.
Start with the undocumented. Trump’s fixation on an expensive and ineffective border wall has diverted resources from other priorities. His slandering of undocumented immigrants has sown division and made it more difficult to resolve their fate politically.
His administration’s cruel and incompetent enforcement strategies have gravely harmed families and children while failing to deter newcomers, and damaging the US’ reputation and relations with its neighbors.
If Trump wants to reduce illegal immigration, he should instead be pushing long-delayed initiatives such as an effective entry/exit system that can curb the visa over-stayers who have outnumbered illegal border crossers in the past few years. He could encourage wider use of the E-Verify system to block illegal workers and step up prosecutions of those companies that employ them — last year, only 11 employers faced charges.
Instead of cutting aid to Central America, he should bolster it, while also using US leverage to persuade its leaders to invest more in their people instead of exporting them to earn remittances.
As for the millions of undocumented already living in the US, Trump proposes mass deportations — an idea that would take years, cost several hundred billion dollars and likely cause the US’ GDP to contract by more than US$1 trillion. For all Trump’s hyperventilating about an “invasion” of the US, the undocumented population fell from 12.2 million in 2007 to 10.5 million in 2017.
The quickest, smartest and most compassionate way to shrink the undocumented population further would be to legalize the million-plus people in the US already under some form of temporary protection.
For instance, more than 400,000 immigrants have been given Temporary Protected Status from deportation back to countries suffering from natural disasters, war or civil unrest. Another 700,000 — the so-called Dreamers — have had temporary protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Both groups deserve compassion. Dreamers were brought to the US by their parents and know no other home. Many under Temporary Protected Status have been in the country for decades. In 2017, the two groups contributed more than US$5.5 billion in taxes and represented US$25 billion in spending power. The lives that they have built include businesses, jobs and homes, as well as nearly 300,000 children who are US citizens by birth.
Sending them back to their countries of origin, especially the Dreamers, would not only betray the US’ values, but squander taxpayers’ investments in their educations and upbringing. It would be far better to legislate a path to legal status — terminating or revamping Temporary Protected Status — so that similar limbos are averted in the future.
Asylum is another area where Trump’s approach is making a bad situation worse. Nothing illustrates the absurdity of his wall preoccupation more than the tens of thousands of Central American asylum-seekers wanting to turn themselves in to the US Border Patrol rather than evade it. The system is undeniably broken: Families seeking to escape poverty, not persecution, exploit its inconsistencies and weaknesses with the help of criminal gangs that profit from their misery.
However, the answer to these problems is not more troops at the border or overblown states of emergency. It is more judges and clerks for the immigration courts, more asylum officers who can process cases quickly and more humane shelters that do not prompt fervid comparisons with concentration camps.
The best way to deter future unmerited claims is to resolve them quickly — so the word gets out — and there is nothing wrong with deporting families whose asylum claims have been rejected: If you want the public to support asylum, it must believe that the system is credible as well as compassionate.
A final concern is refugees. Trump has done his best to transform the US’ policies from a beacon of global hope into a darkening blot on its reputation. One of his first acts in office was to suspend refugee admissions, citing dubious security threats. (Unlike asylum applicants who simply show up at US borders, refugees must undergo extensive screening before they are approved for resettlement.)
Since then, he has repeatedly lowered the ceiling for refugees and slow-rolled even those reduced admissions: Last year, when the ceiling was set at 45,000, the US admitted just 22,491 refugees — the lowest number since passage of the 1980 Refugee Act. This year, with the number of displaced people worldwide at a record high, the ceiling is even lower: 30,000. In 1980, the US admitted 207,116.
The US’ moral standing aside, such stinginess does the country no favors. A 2017 government study, which the Trump administration tried to suppress, estimated that from 2005 to 2014, refugees actually generated US$63 billion more in government revenue than they cost.
Refugees have revitalized ebbing communities in Maine, Missouri, New York and more. Their rate of entrepreneurship is higher even than ordinary immigrants and they are more likely to become US citizens — a proven boost to everything from income to home ownership. Dollar for dollar and person for person, the 3 million refugees that the US has resettled since 1980 have been an invaluable investment.
Fortunately, overall attitudes about immigration have undergone a positive sea change in the US since the 1990s, the decade that saw the second-biggest jump in the proportion of the foreign-born population (after the 1850s). Polls show much greater recognition of the benefits that immigrants bring and a diminished sense of the threats that they pose.
Yet, underlying this shift is a polarizing trend that impedes serious reform: Even as US Democrats and independents have become much more supportive of immigrants and tolerant of illegal immigration, Republican attitudes have slightly hardened.
The partisan gap on immigration is by some measures at a historic high. At its crudest level, this dynamic has translated into a Republican Party that resists even modest fixes to immigration laws and a Democratic Party that refuses to talk seriously about enforcing them.
For instance, Republican intransigence is largely to blame for the failure of the last big attempt at comprehensive immigration reform. In 2013, then-US House Speaker John Boehner refused even to hold a vote on the US Senate’s so-called Gang of Eight bill, a bipartisan and badly needed measure that included a more merit-based system and a path to citizenship.
Meanwhile, today’s Democrats do not exactly talk the walk on enforcement. When the New York Times asked 21 of the Democratic candidates for next year’s presidential election if they thought that “illegal immigration is a major problem in the US,” only four mustered a yes or no. The rest served up the kind of soggy waffles expected at a campaign diner stop.
Both parties are going to have to commit themselves to making significant changes in the US immigration system in the coming decades and reconciling their differences. There might only be a slim chance of that, especially given the polarized discord on the issue since the failure of the Gang of Eight bill and the coming of Trump.
Nonetheless, the past offers a hopeful precedent. In 1977, the US Congress stiff-armed then-US president Jimmy Carter’s proposals on immigration reform, which were sparked by rising illegal Mexican immigration, but that defeat helped birth initiatives and bills that led to the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, the last big reform that Congress passed.
Resolving today’s even more complex challenges requires the bipartisanship and pragmatism that have proved elusive in the past few years. Hopefully, the presence of more than 10 million undocumented residents, the crisis at the border and the growing global competition for immigrant talent will prove to be catalysts that recall Americans to their senses. The demographic and economic future of the US depends on it.
James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg Opinion. He served as a US Foreign Service officer from 1989 to 1997.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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