Immigration: Beyond the Family Way

A salable alternative to kinship-based visa allocation


If the United States is not going to allow open immigration, "the question becomes, how do you allocate scarce visas?" says University of Maryland professor Julian Simon. The federal government, of course, answered that very question almost 30 years ago.

In 1965, Congress repudiated the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, which followed 1920s-era legislation in parceling out immigrant visas based on country of origin. Under the banner of "humanitarian values," Congress decided to allocate visas primarily on the grounds of kinship. The most recent piece of major legislation on the issue, the Immigration Act of 1990, reaffirmed the logic of the 1965 bill while consolidating its categories and updating its numbers. If you want to come to America, the quickest, easiest route is still to have a spouse or relative who is already a citizen or a resident alien. Perhaps because it has been reiterated in all post-1965 revisions of immigration law, family reunification is often taken to be a sacrosanct aspect of U.S. immigration policy.

This is one sacred cow, however, that is being led to slaughter by a growing number of disbelievers. More and more immigration analysts believe it is time to reconsider family reunification as the basic mechanism for legal, non-refugee immigration. Family reunification, they argue, is an arbitrary, time-bound artifact whose justification is no longer self-evident.

Three broad positions outline a powerful critique of family reunification. Backers of a skills-based visa allocation program believe that preference should be given to people most likely to fit into the largely post-industrial U.S. work force. Current policy, says University of California at San Diego economist George Borjas, is "insane" precisely because it fails to ensure a high level of work skills in new arrivals.

Supporters of a first-come, first-served application process believe family reunification discriminates against immigrants from countries with few familial and historical connections to the United States. In its place, they suggest that the government process visa applications as they are received. Because family reunification relies on blood ties, argues Peter Salins, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, it fails to "validate the concept of individual ambition" central to American society.

Proponents of visa auctions or entry fees, including Simon, favor a system in which immigrants pay for the right to enter the country. The price of visas would be determined either by competitive bidding or by the value of social services likely to be used by the immigrants. Family reunification is "inappropriate policy," says University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate Gary Becker, because it obscures the economic incentives for immigrants.

Although the critics of family reunification attack the policy on different grounds, they agree that any new visa-allocation program should continue to allow exemptions for spouses and dependent children. But parents, adult children, and siblings—all of whom currently receive some degree of preferential treatment—would not make the cut.

The history of family reunification supports claims that it is both arbitrary and outmoded. By the early 1960s, few people contested the general legislative and moral failure of McCarran-Walter. The law had to be continually adjusted to account for geopolitical shifts, and its rationale of doling out visas based on country of origin didn't play well in a nation coming to grips with homegrown racial and ethnic prejudice. But before adopting family reunification, Congress discussed various alternative visa-allocation plans, a skills-based program chief among them. Big labor, however, along with immigrant-aid groups and ethnic societies, backed the reunification emphasis, arguing that it would protect American workers and expedite the backlog of reunification cases that had developed under McCarran-Walter.

The 1965 act—passed during an historic lull in immigration—ostensibly set an annual limit of 290,000 immigrants, with 120,000 coming from the Western Hemisphere and 170,000 from the rest of the world. The law designated 20 percent of all numerically restricted visas for "skilled" workers and 6 percent for refugees, with the remainder split among various family-oriented preference categories: unmarried adult children of citizens and legal aliens, married adult children, and siblings of citizens. The most important provision of the law, however, exempted spouses, dependent children, and parents of U.S. citizens from any numerical limits. The exemptions, in effect, made the 290,000 figure meaningless.

The major—and unintended—result was a tremendous boom in immigration totals. The reunification mechanism combined with the close-relative exemptions to allow virtually unlimited "chain migration" by which family members could continue to bring in extended relatives. Between 1961 and 1970, 3.3 million immigrants came to America, a figure that rose to 4.5 million for the decade of 1971-80. From 1981 to 1990, the total was 7.3 million. In 1991, a total of about 800,000 non-refugee new arrivals were admitted; 482,214 were close family members (and therefore exempt from numerical limitations), 238,897 were numerically limited family reunifications, and 55,000 came under skills categories.

Immigration policy always carries heavy political, economic, and cultural baggage. It entails making value judgments not just about potential migrants but about a native society as well. The United States' formative experience with large-scale immigration and its explicit philosophical dedication to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness further muddy the immigration issue. Visa-allocation schemes—of 20th-century origin in the United States to begin with—need to be evaluated in light of both current sociopolitical concerns and the historical significance of immigration to America.

Prior to the 20th century, the United States had essentially open borders—the forced importation of black slaves and the Chinese Exclusion Acts of the 1880s being obvious and disturbing exceptions to the general rule. Although there was always considerable anti-immigrant sentiment, there was also at least a grudging sense that anyone had a right to settle in America.

The relative ease of contemporary migration and the rise of the welfare state in the 20th century greatly complicate the model of largely unfettered immigration. When coming to America meant undertaking an expensive, hazard-filled journey, less ambitious people were automatically filtered out. And for those who made it over but failed or tired of work, the lack of a guaranteed, relatively generous package of welfare benefits made it uncomfortable to remain. Demographers estimate that between one quarter and one third of all pre-1920 immigrants left the country voluntarily.

With the growth of the welfare state, the nativist arguments that slammed the door on immigration in the 1920s and restricted it to favored countries until 1965 have been joined by a new objection to open borders: Free immigration imposes involuntary costs on taxpayers by enlarging the pool of potential welfare recipients. Today, any meaningful attempt at immigration reform will have to balance questions of freedom of movement and contract with the burdens created by the welfare state—to admit as many productive people as possible while screening out those who are likely to become dependent on government largess.

Viewed from this perspective, a skills-based-quota system sensibly seeks to minimize costs by getting the best possible return on any given investment in human capital: Because skilled immigrants are more likely to be employed (and at higher-paying jobs), they are less likely to cost society resources in terms of welfare and other entitlements. "The premier factor [in allocating visas] should be what the economic impact on society is," says skills-based quota proponent Barry R. Chiswick of the University of Illinois at Chicago. (Chiswick also supports a visa auction because he believes it will raise the productivity level of immigrants.) In such a system, several criteria—especially education level, English proficiency, and past job experience—would be used to rank visa applicants, with the high scorers receiving visas.

In his 1990 book, Friends or Strangers, and a series of more recent papers and articles, UCSD economist Borjas documents that recent immigrants as a group are less skilled than past immigrants, relative to the native population. They are also more likely to be on some form of public assistance than their pre-1970 predecessors. In the December 13, 1993, issue of National Review, Borjas notes that in 1970 immigrants were slightly less likely than natives to receive cash benefits. Twenty years later, the situation had changed "drastically: About 9 percent of immigrant households received public assistance, as opposed to about 7 percent of native households." (Even this comparison, however, points up the fact that 91 percent of immigrants do not receive public assistance—contrary to the increasingly common portrayal of immigrants as welfare dependents mooching off the taxpayers.)

Boosting the skill level of new entrants could, Borjas argues, save the country from importing a persistent immigrant underclass. He also claims that the benefits from a hard-working, low-skilled immigrant work force are overrated.

Skills-based systems are already in place in Canada and Australia, countries whose economies roughly parallel that of the United States. Although the results offer some support for the skills-based argument, they are far from compelling. As Borjas himself acknowledges in Friends or Strangers, "because the point system cannot screen visa applicants along every dimension of the skills embodied in individuals, Canada could not stop the deterioration in the skill composition of its immigrant flow."

What the point system might do, Borjas says, is slow the decline of skills among immigrants. Although the theory underlying a skills-based system is clear-cut, its worldly application is a messy affair. Ultimately, its success would depend on the government's ability to pick winners and losers among visa applicants—a task made even more difficult by widely fluctuating international educational and workplace standards: Does a high-school diploma, for instance, mean the same thing in Tokyo, Mexico City, and Port-au-Prince? It is also far from certain that measurable credentials are more important than intangibles such as drive, creativity, and the willingness to work hard. Such a program would fail, just as government attempts to pick winners and losers in industry fail.

Through a detailed visa-application process, the first-come, first-served system would attempt to access precisely those intangibles ignored by a skills-based quota system. Prospective immigrants would fill out extensive visa applications and, assuming a clean bill of health and no past criminal record, they would be processed in the order in which their forms were received. The Manhattan Institute's Salins believes that the application process would both be fairer and select better-motivated immigrants. But it seems highly unlikely that even an involved application process would act as much of a filter. The skills involved in filling out a questionnaire are only loosely related to those that might predict success in the United States.

What is more interesting about Salins's approach is his enthusiastic vision of immigration as central to American culture. "America really sees itself as an equal-opportunity system," he says. "Any hardworking individual can come here and succeed. Immigrants validate this belief constantly. If people start to doubt this is an open society, then it will go downhill fast." Writing in the December 27, 1993, issue of The New Republic, Salins notes as well "that immigrants have reclaimed inner-city neighborhoods that had fallen into a state of advanced decay." For Salins, the immigrant is the exemplar of the American dream.

Salins's defense of immigration actually accords well with a visa auction or fee system. A visa auction would screen out unmotivated immigrants while not excluding individuals due to a lack of educational or professional opportunity in their native countries. "You would tend to get younger, skilled people, and you wouldn't have to resolve the issue of welfare payments because it would be taken into account in how much people were willing to bid to come," says Becker.

The money collected could be allocated mostly to state and local governments, solving a persistent funding problem associated with new arrivals: Although state and local governments pay most of the costs associated with new immigrants, the federal government receives the bulk of their tax money. A portion of the visa revenue could also be used to monitor border crossings.

By forcing prospective immigrants to save money, pool resources with family members, arrange a job with a U.S. employer, or be in contact with the immigrant-aid organizations that would no doubt spring up to help pay for visas, the auction system would encourage the type of planning and dedication that would serve immigrants well while they adjust to new surroundings. Various payment methods—such as installment plans and having employers or other third parties pick up some or all of the visa costs—would ensure that immigration would remain open to poor but ambitious people.

Although it might seem repugnant at first blush to charge an entry fee, as Becker pointed out in The Wall Street Journal in 1992, immigrants historically have "paid dearly for the right to enter." In the early 19th century, for instance, a trans-Atlantic crossing was the equivalent of a year's earnings in the United States. And immigrants today continue to pay through the long queues and bureaucratic procedures that often delay entry for years. The sale of entry permits amounts to a change in the form of cost.

Perhaps even more important, if immigrants are explicitly paying their way into the country, then anti-immigrant sentiments based on the questionable notion that immigrants are getting something for nothing in the United States would be effectively neutralized. The auction system would be a standing argument for liberalizing immigration, which in turn would help energize U.S. society.

"Migrants carry valuable ideas with them and create new ideas as a result of having lived in two cultures," Simon has written. They also, he notes, contribute as workers, consumers, entrepreneurs, and taxpayers. Simon suggests increasing the number of visas rapidly and monitoring the results. "Kick immigration up a million a year for three years and then see what happens," he says.

While the auctioning of visas would represent a significant departure from recent immigration policy, the conditions for its acceptance are perhaps as good as they ever will be. "If we continue to have problems with our immigration policy and people start to search for a more radical solution, the auction system will be available as an option," says Becker. Ironically, the growing discontent with immigration—60 percent of respondents in a 1993 Newsweek poll agreed that current immigration is a "bad thing"—could provide the basis for a structural change in policy that might increase immigration.

Nick Gillespie is assistant editor of REASON.