America’s immigration debate is stuck. The last major revision to our system occurred in 1965, and there are obvious problems with current law. Most glaringly, our system encourages (in multiple ways) an almost random collection of folks to immigrate without regard to the skills and talents that they could bring to America. That should change. Also, America has allowed more than 11 million illegal immigrants to enter the country. They have lived in the shadows for more than a generation — we need to change this as well. In this post, we’ll review the major issues in America’s immigration debate, and point towards a sensible way forward.
President Donald Trump has made immigration reform a top national priority. He has ended the DACA program, under which President Obama had decided not to deport illegal immigrants who were brought to America before they were age 16. President Trump announced that this program would end as of March 2018, in part because he (correctly) viewed President Obama’s order as unconstitutional. He also announced his desire to make changes to current immigration policy. One of his key focus areas is construction of a physical wall across America’s southern border.
In my last post, I reviewed America’s immigration history and outlined a few basic principles. The key takeaways were:
- From a Christian perspective, compassion for immigrants is mandatory, but no specific policy outcomes are specified.
- America is a nation of immigrants — the vitality and drive of the immigrant population is a good thing for America.
- Borders and the Rule of Law matter.
- America’s immigration policy has veered from focusing on preserving America’s ethnic makeup to a centering on permitting immigrants to bring in their relatives. Neither approach is consistent with America’s interests or values.
These themes will help us analyze and recommend changes to America’s current immigration policy.
The first task of any immigration policy should be to ensure that a country’s borders are secure and that its laws are followed. Over the past 30 years, this first principle has been largely ignored. America has allowed (and many have encouraged) people to enter the country illegally. Around two-thirds of illegal immigrants were initially admitted with temporary visas (like student or tourist visas) but overstayed and became illegal. The rest crossed the border illegally.
While the U.S. has improved its immigrant security system since 9/11, there are still steps that should be taken. First, the “e-verify” system, which is an electronic database that employers can use to instantaneously check on the immigration status of their employees, should be made mandatory. Once e-verify is mandatory, illegal immigrants will not be able to find work, and the incentive to enter illegally will be diminished.
Border security is also essential, not only to deter illegal immigration but also to protect America from terrorism. I am skeptical, however, of President Trump’s call for a wall
spanning the Southern border. It appears to be an expensive public relations move and I doubt it will bring the security that he expects. Certainly, physical structures must be a part of any border security plan, but cameras, electric fences and additional border control agents should play a more prominent role.
We Should Replace the Current Broad Family Reunification Program (Chain Migration) with a Skills-Based Approach
The 1965 Immigration Act included a provision that allowed for immigrants to bring in their spouses and minor children fairly easily. It also provided opportunities for those same immigrants to bring in their extended family members (like siblings, parents and grown children). This process can take several years, but it can (and often does) ultimately result in a large number of immigrants to enter the country from one naturalized citizen. The system is known by its supporters as “family unification” and “chain migration” by its opponents.
Family unification, if it means making sure that nuclear families with young children can be together, is a goal that the immigration policy should support. Families are a bedrock of civilization — our immigration system should support that idea. However, Congress should end any preference for other relatives (like siblings or parents) or adult children of immigrants. This is not out of any dislike for the families of immigrants, but because there should be a more meaningful criteria, which we will address now.
Instead of a system based primarily on family unification, the U.S. should adopt a skill-
based immigration policy. This would be consistent with many other major democracies (like Canada, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand) which admit immigrants based upon their skills and potential contributions to their country. Attributes such as having a job offer, education attainment, language capability, willingness to invest, and scientific achievement are all factors used by those countries. Senator Tom Cotton has introduced a bill (the RAISE Act) that advances these idea. However, a skills-based system is not new — a Commission led by Democrat Barbara Jordan recommended a similar scheme in 1995:
Immigration can support the national interest by bringing to the U.S.
individuals whose skills would benefit our society. It also can help
U.S. businesses compete in the global economy. This national interest
in the competitiveness of business must be balanced by an equally
compelling national interest in developing a U.S. workforce that has
the skills necessary to compete in the global economy
We should adopt a skills-based system to replace the current family reunification/chain migration immigrant policy.
Let’s Bring Illegal Immigrants Formally Into Society
There are an estimated 11 million people in America who entered the country illegally. They did so from 1986 until today with the vast majority coming in the 1990’s and 2000’s. Recently, illegal immigration has dropped significantly. Most experts opine that the economic crashes in 2003 and 2008 are largely the cause, along with stronger enforcement of immigration laws. That good news, but what are we to do with the many who are still here?
A core value of the Shire is that the government should not upset the settled expectations of people without great cause. The informal arrangements that have been built by individuals over time usually represent wisdom and good sense. For more than 30 years, America has allowed people to enter this nation illegally. They have worked, paid taxes, owned homes, had children, joined churches and integrated into American life. To forcibly deport all or most of these 11 million immigrants is not only unfeasible, but it is also unfair to both the illegal immigrants and the communities in which they live.
While outright deportation of illegal immigrants is wrong, it is still true that they entered the country illegally. In so doing, they jumped the line — law abiding folks who seek to emigrate to America typically wait 10 to 15 years to obtain a green card (which grants the right to live in permanently live in the United States). At minimum, illegal immigrants should also be required to wait 10 years before they obtain permanent legal status. They should also pay a fine for breaking the law, and then have to go through the same vetting requirements as all immigrants. These requirements should include having no significant (felony) criminal background, being able to speak English, passing a citizenship test, along with paying back taxes and a fine. At the end of this process, the immigrant should be eligible to gain the right to permanently live in the United States.
As for citizenship, it is my belief that this question should be held for a later decision. After the process above is completed, we will learn more about the (formerly) illegal immigrants, and have a better sense of whether citizenship is appropriate or not.
Children of Illegal Immigrants Should Be Able to Become Citzens
Next, let’s consider the children of illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as minors. These children (called “Dreamers” by some, and are the subject of the DACA debate) entered America through no fault of their own and many don’t have significant ties to their home country. So long as these people have not committed a serious crime and graduated from high school (or joined the military), they should be allowed to obtain a green card and begin the process of becoming citizens. Of course, they’ll need to follow the same citizenship eligibility rules as all other immigrants.
While people brought to America as children should ultimately be eligible for citizenship, they still entered the nation illegally. Therefore, they should not be eligible to sponsor other family members under the current family unification/chain migration rules (which, as I argued above, should be ended in any case).
End the Diversity Visa Lottery
The final major change that I would advocate is the end of the current diversity visa lottery. First enacted in 1990, the diversity visa lottery randomly admits 50,000 people each year from countries whose population is relatively small in America. This policy makes almost no sense — why should we randomly admit people into America, even if they are vetted for security purposes? Wouldn’t we be better off selecting immigrants based on their skills and potential contributions to America? We should end the diversity lottery and adopt the skills-based policy that I advocate above.
In summary, it’s time to update America’s immigration policy, strengthen our borders, end chain migration and move to a skills-based system. At the same time, we should finally resolve the status of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. If we can adopt these changes, America will have an immigration policy that better reflects our values and interests.