US immigration policy was built by bureaucrats — it’s hurting us at home and abroad

Greg Nash

The U.S. immigration system just wasted approximately 80,000 H-1B visas. These visas were largely slated to go to skilled, innovative workers who generally occupy the top 10% in terms of earning potential, all stuck in a 1.2 million-person, sometimes decades-long waiting list.

This is just one of several U.S. immigration policy disasters, each the result of bureaucratic failure. 

The U.S. also faces a record high and growing number of backlogged asylum applications. A rush of 15,000 Haitian migrants seeking asylum were forced to camp under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas. The majority of them were released into the U.S. just to clear the camp, with notices to appear at an immigration office within 60 days. Of those, 70 percent are likely to be denied asylum, but it could take the system years to reach a conclusion on their cases.

Delays, backlogs and disruptions like these aren’t just nuisances. We saw in Afghanistan how high the stakes can be. When our immigration system fails on an international level, bad administration can have a terrible human cost. 

Getting cleared for evacuation, as in the case of Afghan refugees, used to take between 18 months to three years, despite Congress’s mandate that the process take no more than nine months. It’s no wonder that tens of thousands of Afghan refugees weren’t able to get processed before the end of the official evacuation effort. 

Today, their situation is even worse. The arduous and lengthy immigration process might not even be possible for stranded Afghans because they won’t have access to a U.S. embassy, where they would be required to interview in person.  

Even Afghans who aided the U.S. during the war either struggled or failed to get their expedited visas in time to escape the Taliban. Of the 18,000 who applied for these Special Immigration Visas, only 705 were evacuated.

Our immigration system’s failure to handle the evacuation of our Afghan allies prompted immediate and sharp criticism, not just from people in the U.S., but from our allies abroad as well. 

The situation in Afghanistan, and the international backlash it received, show us one reason why it’s important to get immigration policy right. Often, lives are on the line, as is our standing in the international community. 

But our immigration system’s failures have definite consequences domestically as well. This system currently impedes those seeking to legally obtain full American citizenship, whatever their circumstances. Even the best and most diligent immigrants face nearly insuperable roadblocks to safe, efficient legal immigration. The State Department, for example, was still processing some employment-related visa applications from April 2009 12 years later in February 2021. 

These bureaucratic failures don’t just affect immigrants; they affect all of us in the United States by depriving our country of the enormous, demonstrable benefits of safe, efficient and legal immigration. 

Over the next 10 years alone, young undocumented immigrants protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy will contribute an estimated $433.4 billion to the gross domestic product. If these immigrants had a clear legal pathway to citizenship, they would generate an additional $1.4 trillion in cumulative GDP growth. 

Of the 300,000 Temporary Protected Status holders in this country, about 27,000 are business owners. They are creating jobs for themselves and other U.S. workers. Over 130,000 TPS holders are essential workers who have been vital in the pandemic in areas such as health care, construction, education, grocery stores, child day care, restaurants and agriculture. 

If all TPS holders were required to leave the country, employers would lose over $1 billion in turnover costs, and the GDP would lose up to $164 billion over the next decade.

These immigrants are all but barred access from legal citizenship due to an outdated and inefficient procedural body. Our immigration system is broken, certainly, but not just because of one administration. This has been years in the making, and it will take years to get out. 

A few efforts already exist that could help reform the system we have. The updated Dream Act of 2021 would create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented essential workers and their families. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act and Biden’s “Day One” immigration orders are other good examples of policies that could streamline legal immigration. And recapturing unused green cards is a straightforward way to eliminate bureaucratic waste and reduce the negative economic impact of our complicated immigration system.

Fixing the U.S. immigration system can’t stop at settling the legalization debate. It must also directly address the wasteful, inefficient processes in place and the administrative maze would-be Americans are forced to navigate. It implicates technology, leadership and systems administration. 

The work extends far beyond the president’s power or even his term, but it is possible — and we owe it to ourselves to make the change.

Kristie De Peña is vice president of policy and director of immigration at the Niskanen Center.


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