One item in Romney’s immigration platform that I hadn’t seen before was this: “Mitt Romney will work with Congress to give legal permanent residents the same priority as citizens when applying to bring husbands, wives, and minor children to the United States.” That means they would be admitted without numerical limit. This category (the Family 2A preference, for those of you keeping track) is for the spouses (and their minor children from earlier relationships) of green-card holders. If you get a green card for some reason, and you have a spouse and minor children, they all get green cards too. But if you were single when you immigrated, and later got married before becoming a citizen, this is the category you would use. People getting their green cards today in this category applied about two and a half years ago.
Making this category unlimited would be a terrible idea. First, it would further increase immigration by several hundred thousand people a year — there are currently about 300,000 people in the queue for this category. But equally important, it dilutes the meaning of citizenship. The message underlying our current arrangement is that an American citizen is delegated the right by his fellow countrymen to decide, on his own, through marriage, who gets to come to the United States without being limited by numerical caps. Permanent residents who are not yet citizens, on the other hand, are subject to the quota system precisely because they are not one of us yet. Admitting without limit the subsequently acquired spouses and children of green-card holders blurs that distinction. A permanent resident can acquire the right to admit a spouse regardless of numerical limits simply by becoming a citizen — something that is probably too easy already.
The only circumstance in which I could see this change being possibly helpful would be if it were offset by elimination of the other family-based categories, for siblings and adult sons and daughters, plus the visa lottery, because those other categories drive further chain migration in a way that spousal immigration does not.
The broader point is that Romney is betting that “less illegal/more legal” is the way to go on immigration. I disagree on policy grounds, but it might well be an attractive message politically. However, if Romney were to win and actually put forward such a package, it would be an interesting political experiment: I suspect it wouldn’t be as popular as the pollsters tell him, because the concerns people have with illegal immigration — jobs, welfare, sovereignty, language, security — are the same for excessive legal immigration.