The Corner

Politics & Policy

How to Balance Skills-Based and Family-Based Immigration

Right now, roughly two-thirds of the green cards issued every year are given to the family members of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents (LPRs). For years, there’s been a growing consensus among immigration reformers on the left and right that we ought to at least consider rebalancing the influx to place greater emphasis on skills. At the same time, however, Americans are broadly sympathetic to family-based admissions, and when explicitly asked about whether we ought to cut it, much of the public objects. It’s a bit like public opinion about the size of government: There are many Americans who will endorse the idea of a smaller government in the abstract, but when pressed on which government programs they’d like to see cut in practice, they’ll recoil, or say the only want to cut foreign aid. So I’d like to make a few quick points.

Advocates of a more permissive immigration policy are pushing back hard against proposed limits of family-based admissions, and they’re taking a number of different tacks. One thing I’ve noticed is an emphasis on the educational attainment of family-based immigrants. In recent years, 47 percent of family-based immigrant adults have had college degrees, as compared to roughly one-third of U.S.-born adults. But this actually tells us less than you might think.

The level of educational attainment is rising throughout the world. However, there are big differences in literacy and numeracy skills conditional on educational credentials across countries, and with the extent to which credentials acquired in one country translate into marketable skills in another. According to the Center for Immigration Studies (which favors a cut in immigration levels), 26 percent of households headed by college-educated immigrants rely on means-tested safety-net benefits as opposed to 13 percent of households headed by college-educated natives. Critics have attacked CIS for using households for comparison, as immigrants tend to have larger families. This is true. Yet it’s also true that labor-market outcomes for college-educated immigrants depend on more than just paper credentials.

Consider the contrast between two different college-educated immigrants: The first is an Indonesian with a computer-science degree from an elite university in Singapore, who now works in Berlin. She speaks English fluently and has secured a lucrative job offer from a U.S. tech company. The second is an Indonesian with a humanities degree from a lower-quality local institution, who does not have a job offer and has only a rudimentary command of English. He does, however, have a sister who is a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Both of these immigrants are positively-selected, as they’re both highly-educated relative to the Indonesian population at large. Moreover, it’s likely that both are drawn from Indonesia’s upper class, which gives them “class-specific resources” they can use to navigate American life. Still, it’s a safe bet the earning trajectory of the English-speaking immigrant with a lucrative job offer will be different to that of her counterpart.

This is the point where an admissionist might denounce me for engaging in “central planning,” which is fair enough. But let’s not forget that, as currently constituted, family-based admissions are a confusing welter of preference categories and per-country limits that have all sorts of perverse outcomes. Earlier this month, the Congressional Research Service updated its detailed report on the subject, which I recommend.

There are two broad subtypes of family-based admissions. The first is immediate relatives — spouses, unmarried minor children, and parents — of adult citizens. There are no limits on this category, which can be understand as capturing the “nuclear family.” The second subtype is called “family preference immigrants,” and it includes four categories, ranked in order of preference: (1) unmarried sons and daughters of citizens, (2a) spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents and (2b) unmarried sons and daughters of legal permanent residents, (3) married children of citizens, and (4) siblings of adult U.S. citizens. Both would benefit from reform.

Consider the “immediate relatives” category. As the Princeton sociologist Marta Tienda has observed, the aged parents represent a surprisingly large share of new LPRs every year, which in turn is “exacerbating the greying of the U.S. population.” A number of recent immigration proposals, including the RAISE Act and the Secure and Succeed Act, stipulate that rather than grant green cards without limit to the parents of U.S. citizens, we’d instead give them five-year renewable nonimmigrant visas, on the condition that sponsors can finance adequate health insurance for them. This provision would ensure that citizens can care for their parents, and it would make it somewhat harder for them to shift the costs of doing so to taxpayers at large.

As for the family-preference categories, current backlogs have proven enormously frustrating to sponsors. Why not prioritize among family-preference immigrants in a more coherent way by, for example, prioritizing among them through the use of a RAISE-style points system?

As a reminder, the RAISE Act, sponsored by Arkansas senator Tom Cotton and Georgia senator David Perdue, introduces a points system, which gives applicants points on the basis of their age, educational credentials, English-language fluency, salary offers from U.S. employers, and more. The goal of the points system is to identify immigrants who will at a minimum be in a position to provide for themselves and their families, which already narrows the pool of applicants dramatically, and ideally to identify those who will make the most substantial economic contributions. Applicants who pass the minimum 30-point eligibility threshold would be invited to file full applications for green cards, and 140,000 employment-based visas would then be issued per year to the highest-scoring applicants.

But there’s a simple tweak that could greatly improve family-based admissions: Under RAISE, potential immigrants under family-preference categories are either grandfathered in (if they were going to be granted green cards in the next year) or they’re given points if they apply for green cards through the points system. The idea is to only extend this benefit to those who are already on the waitlist. It would be simple, though, to keep assigning points to people who now qualify under the family-preference categories. The Canadians do something similar, on the grounds that having relatives in the country increases an immigrant’s “adaptability.”

While I favor a more selective and skills-based system, I appreciate that a substantial reduction in the number of new green cards is highly contentious, and that holding the number steady might be key to breaking the stalemate. Phasing out the family-preference categories, reallocating those visas to employment-based visas, and then adopting a points system that gives some (slight) weight to family ties strikes me as a workable compromise.

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