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Talking Points

Land of Opportunity, Or Hereditary Club?

The Primary Focus of U.S. Immigration Policy Should Shift from Nepotism to Skills
March 10, 2010 |

President Obama has expressed support for Congressional action on immigration reform this year.  Fixing America's broken immigration system will require difficult and controversial reforms, including a path to citizenship for most of the 12 million or more illegal immigrants residing in the U.S., strict enforcement of immigration laws against scofflaw employers and future would-be illegal immigrants, and curtailment of indentured servitude in the form of exploitative "guest worker" programs. 

The most important reform should be changing the basis of America's immigration system from family-based nepotism to skill-based immigration.

The majority of legal immigrants to the U.S. are admitted on the basis of their relationship to U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.  Family preferences include not only spouses and children, but also adult siblings and parents.  As a result, American immigration resembles a Ponzi scheme, in which a single citizen or legal permanent resident triggers a "chain migration" of many more individuals.

While the reunification of immediate families is a worthwhile goal, chain migration is grossly unfair.  It privileges immigrants who benefit from genetic relationships, while discriminating against potential immigrants from every region in the world who would contribute a great deal to American society but lack relatives in the U.S. It allows a small number of countries like Mexico and the Philippines to provide a disproportionate share of U.S. immigration, at the expense of much more populous countries like China and India.  The family preference system even discriminates against individuals in the over-represented countries who are not fortunate enough to have American relatives.

In addition to being unfair, nepotism-based immigration harms the U.S. economy.  Family-based immigration is dominated by less-skilled immigrants.  They enter a labor market in which there was a glut of less-skilled labor even before the recession created the highest levels of mass unemployment since the Great Depression. 

While U.S. immigration policy floods the depressed American labor market with low-wage, low-skilled immigrants admitted on the basis of family connections, it turns away great numbers of prospective immigrants with desirable skills and entrepreneurial qualities.  In 2008, 64.7 percent of the immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident (green card) status fell under the family preference category, while only 12.6 percent were workers admitted under employment-based preferences.   The number of refugees and asylees given green cards--17 percent--was greater than the sum total of all employment-based legal permanent residents.

Other countries have changed their immigration systems to favor skilled workers who contribute to their economies, rather than family unification.  Canada pioneered the use of a "point system" that assigns points to prospective immigrants on the basis of desirable characteristics like higher education, language fluency, and needed skills.  Australia and Britain have adopted points systems as well. 

The contrast between the U.S. and other English-speaking countries is striking.   In Canada, Australia and Britain, immigrants admitted on the basis of their potential contributions to the economy outnumber immigrants admitted on the basis of kinship ties.  The proportions are reversed in the U.S.:

The adoption of a points system in the U.S. would permit the gradual phasing-out of guest worker programs for skilled foreign workers, such as the H-1B.  While these programs have allowed educated immigrants to contribute to the American economy, they are inherently exploitative, because workers must leave the country if they are fired by their employer-sponsors.   Every guest worker program is a form of indentured servitude, in which employers have arbitrary power over workers who lack the rights to quit and join unions.  In a free society, there should be a single-tier labor market, in which all workers are either citizen-workers or legal permanent residents with identical workplace rights.  A points system achieves the goal of admitting skilled workers, without creating separate categories of workers with different rights or granting unjust and easily-abused power over the skilled immigrant workforce to particular employers who sponsor them.   The future population of the U.S. should be chosen by the government, according to objective criteria established by law like a points system, not by individual companies motivated by short-term profit.

While the H-1B and similar exploitative indentured-servant programs for skilled workers should gradually be replaced by a meritocratic U.S. points system, H-2 visas for unskilled, temporary foreign workers in agriculture and other industries should be completely abolished.  With nearly one in five Americans effectively unemployed, and with high rates of unemployment likely to linger for years or decades, it is preposterous for employers to argue that there is a shortage of potential farm workers, hotel maids, and other low-skilled workers in the U.S.  In a market economy, employers should raise wages and benefits to attract workers to less-desirable occupations, instead of demanding that the U.S. government provide them with corporate welfare in the form of unfree indentured servants from other countries.

During the failed comprehensive immigration reform effort of 2008, a version of a points system was included in the evolving bill.  Unfortunately, senators acting on behalf of low-wage employers assigned janitors, cleaners, and landscapers 16 points, almost as many as engineers and scientists, who received 20 points.  To make matters worse, the proposed point system gave points for having U.S. family members and gave low-skilled workers 5 points for vocational training certificates.  There would be no purpose to a U.S. points system if it were rigged by Congress to reinforce, rather than change, the existing bias in favor of immigrants with U.S. relatives in occupations like janitor, cleaner and landscaper, and against prospective immigrant scientists and engineers.  Low-skilled occupations that will experience high demand in the future should be limited to America’s less-skilled workers.  Far from being a problem, tight labor markets in fields like home health care and maid service would be welcome if they allowed workers to demand higher wages.

The unification of immigrants with their nuclear families should remain a major part of U.S. immigration policy.  But family unification should be limited to spouses and children.  The U.S. should learn from other countries and reform its immigration admissions criteria so that the majority of immigrants are admitted on the basis of their potential contribution to the U.S. economy, not on the basis of their genes. 

The domination of U.S. immigration policy by family unification threatens to turn the American citizenry into a club with hereditary membership.  That outcome betrays the ideal of America as a place where immigrants help build a new and better society while pursuing the American dream. The U.S. should learn from other countries and reform its immigration admissions criteria so that the majority of immigrants are admitted on the basis of their potential contribution to the U.S. economy, not on the basis of their genes.  By replacing nepotism with economic potential as the primary basis for the U.S. immigration system, Congress can help the U.S. compete in the global contest for talented individuals while renewing the ideal of America as a land of opportunity.

Related: U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform (The Jordan Commission); Breaking the Immigration Stalemate (Brookings-Duke Immigration Policy Roundtable, 2009)

The U.S. should learn from other countries and reform its immigration admissions criteria so that the majority of immigrants are admitted on the basis of their potential contribution to the U.S. economy, not on the basis of their genes.

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