In the first half of 2017, the United States dispensed slightly more than 560,000 green cards. Looking over the numbers yields a sort of awe at the breadth of American immigration: The biggest sources are not particularly surprising (81,000 from Mexico, 38,000 from China, 31,000 from India), but beyond that there is the vast constellation of global peoples admitted to America every year: 7,700 immigrants from Ethiopia, 5,800 from Nepal, 5,200 from Peru, 4,900 from Ukraine. Close to every single country in the world is represented. We accepted immigrants by the thousands from Yemen, Guatemala, Burma, and Pakistan; by the hundreds from Guinea, Georgia, and Kuwait; by the dozens from Mauritius, Suriname, and Niger. Even Luxembourg got 19 green cards. It might seem as if the rationale behind American immigration policy was in part to simply represent as many countries as possible.
This, in fact, is exactly what is going on.
The United States accepts more immigrants than anywhere else in the world — though in fairness, we also have a larger population than most other countries — but we do so in one of the most convoluted and unusual ways. Aside from America, the five Western countries with the largest immigrant populations are Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, and Australia. Each one of these countries has more or less the same system: Educated immigrants with certain skills may obtain visas as skilled workers, and they may bring their spouses and their children with them. There are, of course, some differences: The United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia manage skilled workers using a points-based system, for instance; the United Kingdom, France, and Germany all have to abide by the free movement of the Schengen zone; Canada also allows residents to sponsor immigration by certain relatives. But in all countries, the major framework remains the same: The free movement within the European Union notwithstanding, legal immigration is primarily about skilled labor.
Now consider the American system. Of those 560,000 green cards, only 75,000 were granted on the basis of “employment-based preferences.” This means that approximately 13 percent of immigrants to America are selected for economic reasons. For comparison, Canada plans to accept 57 percent of its 2017 immigrants on an economic basis. We also accepted 76,000 refugees and 259,000 immediate relatives of U.S. citizens (spouses, children, and parents).
What about the remaining 150,000 immigrants? Some 117,000 were “family-sponsored preferences.” This refers to a host of relations — adult children, siblings, etc. — of permanent residents and citizens who don’t fall under the category of immediate family members. Unlike spouses or minor children, these categories aren’t automatically eligible to immigrate to America. Yet these sponsored categories accounted for over 20 percent of American immigration. Even more striking is the diversity lottery, which randomly grants admission to applicants from “low-admission states” — countries that are not highly represented in American immigration figures — who have completed high school. This lottery accounted for 21,000 immigrants. This means that about 4 percent of American immigration is allocated purely for the sake of making America more diverse. Too few immigrants from East Timor? Increase the lottery figures for Dili.
It is worth noting how unusual this is. The vast bulk of American immigration has nothing to do with merit, which is not the case in almost any of our peer immigration systems. Instead, most of the American immigration system consists of family-based immigration, about a third of which is under the family sponsoring system and is far more generous than the international norm. (It is true, as mentioned earlier, that Canada also has family-sponsored immigration — but once spouses are excluded, this accounts for only 7 percent of Canada’s permanent residents. Extended family members account for 0.1 percent.) Nor is there any international equivalent of the diversity lottery, which amounts, as Charles Krauthammer memorably quipped, to picking people “out of the Karachi phonebook.”
We have the least rigorous immigration system.
In essence, while America doesn’t necessarily have the most open immigration system in the developed world (Canada admits more immigrants in proportion to its population, for instance), we do have the least rigorous immigration system. In part, this may reflect relatively open American attitudes toward immigration: Americans are far more likely than Europeans to believe that diversity is intrinsically good, and to welcome immigration for the sake of immigration. (Incredibly, American conservatives are more pro-diversity than German or Swedish liberals.) Hence the fondness for a diversity lottery that would probably be anathema to most of Europe, the lack of opposition to exceedingly generous policies of family reunification, and the relative tolerance for an immigration policy that doesn’t particularly prioritize the national interest.
What this all means, without getting into the merits of the plan here, is that a skill-based point system along the lines of what Tom Cotton and David Perdue are proposing, and which the White House has supported, would represent a shift in line with international norms regarding immigration. (Cotton-Perdue would also cut the total amount of legal immigration roughly in half, which is a different issue.) This is in itself an argument neither for nor against immigration reform: Some international norms are good, some bad. But it does mean that the temptation on the left to view skills-based immigration as a descent into ethno-nationalism is unfounded. Really, it would just make us more like the rest of the world.