NYT Op-Ed: A Self-Defeating Immigration Policy

Everyone seems to agree that U.S. immigration policy is badly in need of repair, but there is substantially less concurrence about what is broken and how to fix it. As a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece points out, the problem of illegal immigration gets most of the attention – with federal, even state, authorities scrambling to seal the border – while we continue to ignore the disastrous economic consequences of an immigration system that provides far too few visas to talented foreigners who want to work here. (See Foreign Stimulus, by Pia Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny, New York Times, 13.Sep.2010.) One might sum up this self-defeating situation in the words of Walt Kelly’s cartoon alter ego, Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

According to Orrenius and Zavodny, the current immigration system is lopsided, tilted too heavily toward family immigration, with about 85 percent of all new green cards granted to family members of U.S. citizens or green card holders, and to “humanitarian refugee and ‘diversity immigrants’ who come from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.” This leaves 15 percent of the available green cards for foreign workers who wish to immigrate to the United States, and their family members, Orrenius and Zavodny report. The families of foreign workers take up about half of the available visas, they point out, “leaving a mere seven percent of so-called principal workers, most of whom are highly skilled. No other major Western economy gives such a low priority to employment-based immigration, and for good reason: these immigrants are the most skilled and least likely to be a burden on taxpayers.”

The reason more of these workers can’t get in is that we don’t let them, Orrenius and Zavodny argue. Our current system limits the number of employment-based green cards that are available at any given time – leaving too many talented applicants, and the businesses that would profit from their employment, standing in line. This hits applicants from India and China especially hard, the authors point out, because “in general, no more than 7 percent of green cards can be allocated each year to applicants from any one country.”

To make the system faster and more responsive to the needs of the market, Orrenius and Zavodny propose allocating worker visas by auction, doing away with the current lottery and first-come, first-served visa system. Actually, their proposal calls for two separate auctions for two differing segments of the labor market: high-skilled and low-skilled workers. Low-skilled workers should be included in the system, Orrenius and Zavodny argue, to provide enough visas so that low-skilled workers have fewer incentives to immigrate illegally. To respond to changing market conditions, the government could shrink or expand the number of permits available at auction, they say, and the resulting revenue could be used to reduce the deficit, retrain workers displaced by immigration, or cover other immigration-related costs incurred by states or localities with large immigrant populations.

The Orrenius / Zavodny proposal is another constructive contribution to the debate about how best to reform our immigration system, one that casts a cold critical eye on the priority we currently give to family-based immigration. Few will dispute the desirability of maintaining a strong family-based immigration system, but a rebalancing of our priorities is well worth considering, given present economic circumstances, and the inability of our present system to keep pace with the needs of our business community. Anyone interested in reading about Orrenius and Zavodny’s proposals at greater length, may wish to check out their new book, Beside the Golden Door: U.S. Immigration Reform in a New Era of Globalization.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.