The ongoing debate on U.S. immigration reform tends to focus on domestic aspects of this legislation still pending with Congress, but there is another issue worth looking at that has global impact.
A little known provision in the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 USC § 1101(a)(27)(I)) authorizes the U.S. Government to grant permanent residency to retired staff members of international organizations who, while working for multilateral institutions such as the UN, live in the U.S. for 15 years.
Those engaged in the immigration debate rightly focus on the costs and benefits to the U.S. of immigration reform, but they are likely unaware of the detrimental impact this particular provision has on the work of the UN and other international organizations based here. Opening borders and welcoming others to stay in the U.S. may be beneficial in many ways, but it can hurt these institutions whose budgets are largely funded by American taxpayers.
By offering legal permanent residency to international bureaucrats, the U.S. is encouraging them to avoid being sent overseas on field missions — where they would share with their colleagues the challenges and benefits of being posted in a variety of locations, including hardship postings. These organizations are deprived of staff rotations and turnover, and those not already posted to the U.S. are unlikely to find many openings here. The result is a stagnant working environment, rather than a dynamic and vibrant workforce that could be more effective in tackling today's global challenges.
For the past few years, this is precisely what UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and others seeking to reform the system have been striving to achieve. In August 2012, the Secretary-General presented his report on staff mobility as part of his human resources management reform proposal.
The report states his goal as "to improve the ability of the Organization to deliver its mandates, helping to ensure that the right people are in the right position at the right time, and allowing the Organization and staff to benefit systematically from the opportunities that mobility affords."
Since then, Ban has faced an uphill battle fighting those most resistant to his proposal, namely the headquarters-based staff unions and many delegates in the UN General Assembly (who would have to vote to implement these changes). Both groups prefer the status quo to protect themselves or their fellow nationals.
The Secretary-General proposes a seven-year limit on postings at headquarters locations (like New York, Geneva, and Vienna) — which seems very generous when compared to the tours of duty of U.S. career diplomats based in Washington.
The UN already has a general policy — on paper — of placing a five-year limit on staff postings, but Ban has discovered that many UN bureaucrats are able to remain in their positions for far longer. So even if the UN General Assembly adopts his proposal, one wonders if the bureaucrats would find new ways to circumvent it.
Ban’s seven-year limit would still prevent G-4 visa holders of international organizations from automatically becoming eligible for U.S. green cards upon retirement, because they would effectively be unable to attain the 15 years of required residency needed to apply.
So we face a very unusual situation: The U.S. is now being far more generous handing out green cards than the UN Secretary-General would like it to be. The United States’ official position is to favor staff reform and mobility within the UN system, yet U.S. law provides a very strong incentive for international bureaucrats to remain here for long periods, rather than seeking assignments abroad.
Even more puzzling, the U.S. appears to be the only country in the world whose visa policies discourage international staff mobility. No other nation is as generous — and none reciprocates by offering permanent residency to U.S. citizens working for international organizations on its territory.
There is no justifiable purpose to continue this policy. The U.S. is already in the enviable position of attracting the best talent from around the world who also seek permanent residency, and ultimately citizenship. Whether retirees of international organizations spend their pensions here or elsewhere would have no appreciable impact on the American economy. The U.S. can afford to stop offering them green cards.
The bigger question though is whether the U.S. truly wants what it calls for: effective and creatively-managed international institutions. If the answer is yes, it should close a loophole in domestic legislation that only serves to impede this goal.
Lagon is professor in the Practice of International Affairs at Georgetown University, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and former specialist on UN reform at the State Department and Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff. Rafii worked for the UN for 13 years and is now a reform advocate (see www.changetheun.com).