US Immigration: a Primer

President Trump was elected for a variety of reasons but any observant person knows that the general topic of immigration played a significant role. Mr Trump appears unfamiliar with the current American immigration system and he is ignorant of the economic benefits of immigration, or he downplays them. Below I address modest parts of both topics. I aim for sensationalism rather than for completeness.

First a little bit about the American immigration system such as it is in January 2017. There are two main bizarre ideas among Trump supporters about the real system: One regards who is allowed to come into this country (legally, I mean); the other strange misconception has to do with how aliens become US citizens.

The system by which the US admits immigrants is a little complicated and its description relies on a specialized legal jargon. In my considerable experience, few people have the patience to sit through a lecture on American immigration policy. So, let me cut to the chase:

THE NON-EXISTENT ORDERLY QUEUE

There is no way, zero way, the average married Mexican can legally immigrate into this country.

This is worth mentioning because many are under the impression that illegal immigrants are cheats who cut through the line instead of patiently waiting their turn.

The “average Mexican” does not have American-born children, children who are US citizens by birth. Mexicans who do have such children and the children are minors go to the head of the line. There is no (zero) line for those who don’t have close relatives who are Americans or legal immigrants. This example illustrates the US immigration policy that accounts for most legal immigrants in most years: Family re-unification.  

Sophisticated people noticed long ago that there is an instantaneous way to acquire an American relative. It’s to marry an American. Doing so for the purpose of gaining admission to the US is illegal for both parties involved. I don’t know if anyone ever goes to jail for it but it’s ground for immediate deportation. Nevertheless, I am told by some of my immigrant friends that there is a thriving little cottage industry of visa brides and grooms for a fee in some parts of the country. I cannot verify this rumor but I believe it.

Similarly, there is only one way the average married Irish man or woman may immigrate into this country: Winning a lottery. (You read this right: a lottery which one may play as often as one wishes; it has not entry fee.) In 2015, only about 49,000 people, all from Europe and Africa, gained admission on the basis of winning that lottery.

Some legal immigrants gain admission under the broad category of “employment related reasons.”  This category includes high-level programmers as well as farriers. (Look it up.) It’s a small number. In 2015 they made up about 15% of all one million-plus legal admissions. Our average Mexican and our average Irishman does not qualify here either.

You may have heard of an “investor’s visa” accorded to foreigners who will create employment in the US. That’s always a tiny number, about 10,000 in 2015.  It’s not always open. Congress decides about if every so often.

There is a third main, amorphous way by which foreigners are admitted, “asylum” broadly defined. I call it “amorphous” because the definition of who is a refugee or an asylum seeker can be changed by Congress in a very short time. The President decides how many can be admitted in either category. The number admitted under this category is accordingly highly variable. It was about 150,000 in 2015. It could have become 500,000 in 2016 because of a new crisis anywhere in the world. (It didn’t.) The current, Trump figure of  50,000 seems just about normal historically. Yet, there is wide variation about the average.

There is thus no orderly queue that Felipe or Ahmed could join on their own if they wanted to avoid becoming illegal aliens.

That’s it, folks. If you want to know more about the raw numbers, study the relevant pages in the Statistical Abstract of the US.

So, contrary to what I suspect is a widespread idea among conservatives, it is not the case that there is an orderly, wide-open legal way to immigrate into this country that illegal immigrants perversely ignore. Illegal immigrants are not rudely jumping to the head of the line; they come in through a side-door the US does not seem able to close.

One more thing, a programmatic idea: Instead of the present admission policies (plural)  based on viciously absurd selection we have, we could take a page from the Australian and from the Canadian playbooks. That is, we could coolly decide what kind of immigrants we want and try and tailor a door to those precise dimensions. Presently, we are doing very little of this, however unbelievable it may sound. Such a rational procedure would not not need to eliminate refugee and asylum seekers admissions.

I am personally in favor of such a reform . I also think special policies  should apply  to our proximate neighbors to the north and to the south. I developed this idea with Sergey Nikiforov in an article [pdf] published in the Independent Review several years ago.

Incidentally, I am a product of a rational immigration policy myself. I was admitted on merit alone. I rest my case! Thank you for asking. OK, truth be told, I tried to come in as a spouse of an American citizen but she dumped me.

GAINING CITIZENSHIP

On to the next misconstrued idea. I keep hearing (on talk radio, I confess) irate citizens affirming that foreigners who don’t want to take American citizenship should not be admitted. The case hardly arises.

In fact, in reality, to be allowed to become a US citizen, to take American citizenship, requires several years of residence in this country after being legally admitted. (See above.)

Hence, personal preference plays little role in determining which immigrant does not become a US citizen. I don’t have the numbers but I am sure that, as a rule, the vast majority of legal immigrants adopt American citizenship shortly after they are legally empowered to do so. It is true that, in theory, some hesitation or some problems may arise in connection with some countries of origin who do not wish to recognize dual citizenship. In practice, depriving anyone of his passport is low on the list of priorities of most countries from which new US citizens originate. (India may be an exception – a curious exception – as if the country were facing an unbearable burden of immigrants of all sorts.)

The consequence of this scenario is that, contrary to what I think is a widespread notion, there is no horde of legal immigrants living in this country and peevishly and disloyally refusing to take American citizenship. It also follows that there is no mass of illegal immigrants who obstinately refuse American citizenship. It’s not available to them, period.

I think it’s legitimate to be opposed to illegal immigration and even to legal immigration but it’s best to do on the basis of correct information.

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One thought on “US Immigration: a Primer

  1. The best clear and concise description of the US immigration issues I have ever read. As a person who traveled a whole immigration route from F-1 student visa to US citizenship, I can validate that all described is true. I also agree with the author that switching to the Canadian type system (immigration by assigning points for skills and training a country) needs is the best alternative to the existing system

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