President Trump’s updated travel ban, released on Monday, is a temporary measure. The larger and more lasting question concerns the direction of immigration policy generally. Officials in Washington are pondering a new approach. It would dispense with the current system that gives precedence to family reunification and focus instead on opening America’s doors to foreigners with high skills and education.
One objective: to end what critics call “chain migration,” in which an immigrant is admitted because he is a sibling to an immigrant already residing in the U.S. Then the sibling brings a spouse, and the spouse brings her siblings, and so on ad infinitum. To skeptics, family-reunification policy is one reason the U.S. has such a large number of Latino immigrants. Some immigration hawks object to that, feeling that America is losing what they see as the country’s Eurocentric identity.
Ironically, the family-reunification policy itself was adopted in the hope of preserving that identity.The Lyndon Johnson administration sought to abandon the country’s quota system for national immigration, which favored European nations, for a skills-based system that would allow entry by those whose abilities were deemed “especially advantageous” to the U.S. Conservatives in Congress pushed back, advocating a family-focused system on the theory that it would sustain the existing preference for European immigrants, who were already present in large numbers.
Half a century later, it’s clear that the family-reunification policy has not worked out quite as its supporters intended. (Funny how often that happens in government, isn’t it?)
Focusing on skilled immigrants instead of those connected by blood makes sense in a raw utilitarian fashion. It would add to the nation’s human capital and reduce the number of immigrants who rely on public assistance. But it also has drawbacks. Chief among those is the likelihood that it would cut total lawful immigration by almost half. That’s bad for the country in the long term, since the descendants of immigrants are a net gain for society. Moreover, the U.S. needs more immigration, not less, to fuel the economic growth necessary to dig out of its deep fiscal hole. Native-born Americans simply don’t have enough children to get the job done, and even if they were to start tonight, it would be at least 18 years before those children would switch from being consumers of government services to producers of tax revenue.
The optimal immigration policy, therefore, is one that would let in more of everyone: more skilled and educated immigrants, and more immigrants related to alien residents by blood. Of course, to do that would require such a policy winning approval from both a Republican Congress and President Trump. Odds of that are, to put it mildly, rather slim.