How to mend chain migration (without ending it)

How to mend chain migration (without ending it)
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The debate over chain migration leans toward the extremes. The left instinctively cries racism over any plan to limit future numbers, regardless of country of origin. But some on the right fail to understand how merit-based systems can be exploited and don't recognize why we need to preserve elements of chain migration. My experience as a former foreign service officer who has issued thousands of immigrant visas tells me that we need a merit-based system that is highly selective, and a family scheme that allows Americans to bring spouses and minor children to the United States, but not other relatives.

In 2016, the United States issued green cards to 38,858 professionals with advanced degrees, or “aliens of exceptional ability,” a figure dwarfed by the more than 800,000 migrants who came in thanks to a family relationship with an American citizen or green card holder. In recent years, roughly two-thirds of all green cards issued went to immigrants based upon a family relationship with a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. The new arrivals in 2016 included a record 173,854 parents, 67,000 siblings, and more than 300,000 spouses of U.S. citizens.

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I have five brothers and if I were to move to, say, Australia, I would never assume that all six of us, plus my parents, should be entitled to live there. But that’s exactly what U.S. law offers migrants. At the same time, two of my brothers and several friends have petitioned for their foreign spouses to get green cards and, later, U.S. citizenship.

 

Marriage to a U.S. citizen is the single biggest chunk of family migration. Twenty years ago, just 151,000 foreign spouses obtained green cards based on marriage to an American. Last year, the figure was more than double that. Marriage fraud is a growing problem that requires more investigative scrutiny, but most international relationships are legitimate and it would be a serious infringement on our freedom if we couldn’t bring over foreign spouses, assuming they have no criminal record.

But leaving aside spouses and children, we need to be much more selective about who we let into the country. My former colleagues at embassies and consulates have virtually no discretion to deny applications based on an applicant’s lack of education, skills or work experience. And even convicted criminals can apply for so-called hardship waivers. (At an embassy where I worked, we once had to issue an immigrant visa to a convicted child molester who married a U.S. citizen.)

Unlike spouses and parents, who have no wait period, the sibling of a U.S. citizen can wait 14 years to get a green card — in some cases, much longer depending on the country they come from. And yet, despite the fact that some applicants have more than a decade to prepare for life in the United States, I found that many aspiring immigrants I interviewed hadn’t learned even a few basic phrases in English. Some had no work experience or any of the skills demanded by our knowledge-based economy — and yet, if they had all their paperwork in order, we had to issue their visas.

The long waits that siblings endure to come to the United States, along with the rising numbers of parents of those immigrating, have led to a graying of our migrant population. The Center for Immigration Studies reported in 2017 that more than 21 percent of family migrants are age 50 or older, up from 17 percent in the 1980s. Absorbing older migrants is expensive for taxpayers. And less-educated, less-skilled workers tend to consume much more in government services than they pay in taxes.

Experienced immigration attorneys will try to exploit any type of merit-based system that is created. As a consular officer, I often saw the Department of Homeland Security approve petitions for “aliens of extraordinary ability” (a type of merit green card) with dubious credentials. One was a Macedonian hobby car racer who was described as the “Dale Earnhardt of Macedonia.” Another was a part-time youth soccer coach from Liberia. And so, a merit-based system would have to be selective — only the world’s best and brightest should be approved. This means that people with advanced degrees in Baltic Gender Studies or Balinese Puppetry Arts need not apply.

President Kennedy famously remarked in his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” For too long, our immigration system has focused too little on what’s good for immigrants and not enough on what’s good for our country.  Preserving the elements of family migration that make sense, and bringing in a smaller number of younger, better-educated and skilled immigrants, would give us an immigration system that prioritizes our national interests over an autopilot chain migration system that has outlived its usefulness.

Dave Seminara was a tenured member of the U.S. Foreign Service from 2002-2007. He worked as a consular and political officer at U.S. embassies in Macedonia, Trinidad and Hungary, with temporary consular assignments in Poland and Bulgaria, and also has worked in the Bureau of African Affairs.