In the world of immigration, the United States of America is a rogue state.
It wasn’t always so. There was a time in the early 20th century when the United States was viewed by the world as a paragon of immigration policy. Then a rising power that solidified its grip on a continent by settling immigrants from far and wide on disputed land, the United States established the world’s first federalized admissions restrictions in 1882. Other immigrant magnets such as Canada and Australia would follow its precedents in governance—however morally questionable—for generations. In those days, merely regulating human movement at all was pioneering.
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However, thanks to decades of partisan brinkmanship and polarizing identity politics, it has now been 32 years since Congress passed a major piece of legislation governing immigration—a matter of pivotal social and economic consequence. It has been even longer since the landmark 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act abolished quotas based on national origins and focused American policy thereafter on the admission of people with family ties—principles that form the foundation of U.S. immigration policy today. Since then, other countries have put in place new regimes that admit and integrate immigrants as part of modern national strategies related to labor recruitment, business development and demographic aging. Australia’s Parliament passes tweaks to its immigration laws almost every month.
My coauthor Anna Boucher and I have gathered admissions and citizenship data from 30 of the world’s most prominent destination countries. We found that the world has largely shifted to a model of immigration policy that approaches immigration more as an economic instrument than a statement of values. These policies reflect the logic of a global “gig economy” that views people as commodities to recruit, employ and dismiss at will. In contrast, U.S. regulations emphasize admissions for the purpose of family reunification, limit the admission of highly skilled migrants, limit temporary migration, and—relative to other countries—facilitate access to American citizenship.
Once the standard-bearer, the United States is now the outlier.
The U.S. military doesn’t use 1980s weaponry. The Securities and Exchange Commission doesn’t use 1980s financial software. Medicare doesn’t provide 1980s medicine. But America has settled on immigration regulations designed for an era that preceded the internet, free trade and the end of the Cold War.
Modernity, however, comes with tradeoffs. Like the era before World War II, when governments crudely excluded ethnic groups in light of eugenicist ideologies about racial hierarchy, other countries’ 21st-century policies that pursue immigrants based on new ideals of merit neglect humanitarianism. They devalue family togetherness, ignore the potential for immigration to save lives and stimulate developing economies, and they treat immigrants as disposable labor. For the United States, one step forward has thus meant one step back.
By preserving anachronistic policies, American regulation both hinders our competitiveness but reflects the spirit of equality and humanity that infused the legal reforms of the late 1960s. Foolishly, new proposals from the Trump administration will only make us less economically competitive and less humane.
Our study of citizenship and immigration flows—the amount of foreigners a government admits each year—covers former settler states like the United States, but also Australia, Canada and New Zealand. We examine Japan and South Korea, the Nordic states and all continental European countries from Germany westward. We also include many countries from the developing world, where nearly half the world’s migrants go today. These include Bahrain, Brazil, China, Kuwait, Mexico, Oman, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Singapore. We have results for much of the past decade and complete data for 2011, a relatively ordinary year preceding the disruptions of the European migrant crisis.
With only a few exceptions, we find that three key trends characterize today’s immigration outcomes:
Temporary Visas: Immigrants enter on more temporary visas that—while often renewable—limit their residency entitlement to a short term.
Labor migration: Most permanent visas admit immigrants for their labor or under regional free movement agreements designed to facilitate labor mobility.
Fewer Naturalizations: These policies mean that fewer immigrants are able to access citizenship and the full set of freedoms, rights, and protections it entails.
With these priorities, other countries have evolved to recognize immigration as a crucial strategy to combat demographic aging, recruit innovators, attract highly skilled professionals and fill labor gaps with limited new membership. Some like Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom have devised points-based systems that admit migrants based on the extent to which they fulfill “merit” criteria related to language proficiency, skill, employment and recognized educational credentials. Other countries, like those on the Arabian Peninsula, have established overseas labor recruitment offices to promote and facilitate temporary migration. Many countries in Europe and Latin America have struck agreements with each other to permit the mobility of human capital.
These governments have identified the specific ways that immigration benefits their economies and their populations, and have proactively sought to design systems that deliver immigration in the manner they wish. The United States, unfortunately, has largely left immigration to the inertia around an outdated system and assumed that America’s magnetic power will override the benefits of considered strategy for recruitment, admissions, and retention.
So the United States has been stuck in a sort of policy formaldehyde. Since the reforms of the 1960s, the U.S. has insisted that all foreign students at American universities take their new skills and leave within a year of graduation. Meanwhile, the U.S. has rigidly capped the admission of highly skilled engineers, scientists and programmers from China and India. The U.S. economy is structurally reliant on the cheap, flexible labor of undocumented immigrants, particularly in the construction, agricultural and service industries that build, nourish and comfort American society. It is costly and difficult for companies to justify the hiring of foreign people with extraordinary talent. And it is relatively easy for people to overstay their visas unbeknownst to the U.S. government. Congress has voted against laws that condition hiring on documented status checks, and refused to implement a system of exit stamps that confirm the departure of immigrants at ports. Congress has also refused to fund the agencies that process applications for citizenship and entry, as if the U.S. government is doing immigrants a favor and not redeeming any benefits of its own.
As a result, the United States stands out. About 65 percent of our permanent visas are granted for the purposes of family reunification. No other country is higher than 50 percent, and nearly all other countries are under 30 percent. The share of all visas granted to family members and refugees is higher than all other countries as well—more than 11 percent higher than the nearest countries, Ireland and Sweden. People who immigrate for family and refuge—non-economic reasons—are typically placed on a path to citizenship; and yet American naturalization rates are lower than numerous other countries with a greater emphasis on economic migrants, especially Canada. Further, while other countries have regularized undocumented immigrants, the United States features the highest estimates of undocumented immigrants in the world—between 10 and 12 million people.
From the perspective of many moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats, American policies are makeshift and haphazed. We turn away millions of highly skilled professionals, patent filers, and young contributors to the tax base. We are an anachronism that fails to compete at the international level for the best and the brightest and fails to manage flows responsibly. The costs are immeasurable because the counterfactual is unknown, but it is qualitatively clear that American economic admissions policies hinder high-skilled migration more than other countries.
On the other hand, many advanced countries elsewhere have devalued humanitarianism, ignored the benefits of family migration and greater diversity, and pursued economic strategies without consideration for their ethical implications. Singapore deports certain classes of immigrants if they become pregnant. Countries on the Arabian Peninsula grant almost nobody citizenship and deport immigrants’ children if they don’t get a job by the time they are adults. And European countries have refused to equally share the responsibility of resettling humanitarian migrants; the Dublin Agreement shifts all responsibility to the countries of first arrival on the Mediterranean Sea.
During the decades since its last major immigration legislation, the U.S. government vetted, resettled and promoted the integration of more refugees than any other country worldwide—until the Trump administration’s recent Muslim ban and 60 percent cut in refugee admissions. American policies provided citizens with the right to reunify with their spouses, children of any age, parents and siblings by sponsoring them for admission. Even though these migrants’ entry was not justified by the economic gains they were expected to bring, employment and entrepreneurship data do not suggest an appreciable difference between them and labor migrants. Though successive administrations have created and maintained obstacles to acquiring citizenship (such as tests, fees, bureaucratic drag and waitlists), rates of naturalization remain relatively high. The United States has also run a unique “diversity lottery” that vets and randomly selects qualified immigrants from underrepresented countries for admission—solidifying America’s reputation as a country of dreams that is open to all peoples.
From this perspective—shared by liberal and mainstream Democrats—the United States’ inability to evolve has meant that it has maintained among the more humane admissions systems in the world. Until Trump’s executive orders, the United States was a beacon of openness—a laissez-faire country that with each generation reinvents itself thanks to the infusion of innovative, intrepid, industrious newcomers.
The problem is that our failure to modernize this relatively humane system has led to unquantifiable, missed economic opportunities and gross inefficiencies that have inflamed political conflict.
When the U.S. did not facilitate temporary work permits and seasonal visas for unskilled laborers, migrants chose to meet employer demand without authorization, and employers eagerly ignored their legal status.
When Congress did not act on the plight of the innocent children who accompanied these undocumented labor migrants, President Barack Obama issued an executive order that circumvented the legislative process. Separately, scores of municipalities refused to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement agents.
When the public grew frustrated with a perceived inability to govern borders, they supported President Donald Trump and his promise of greater order.
However, the Trump Administration’s draconian crackdown on undocumented immigrants and their families and its recently announced plans are retrenching the United States, when we need to be catching up.
And what about Trump’s wall? This expensive boondoggle will not prevent the visa overstays and visa violators that constitute the vast majority of the undocumented migrants. His proposed termination of the diversity lottery and limits on family migration reduce total admissions rather than than creating space for highly skilled professionals. And if Democrats and moderate Republicans will agree to these measures, only then will the president agree to do the humane (and practical) thing and make the children of undocumented immigrants eligible for citizenship—albeit not for another decade.
And yet, the U.S. can be both humane and economically sensible at the same time.
It is possible to design a points-based system of admissions that identifies “merit” in economically desirable credentials, but also in American family ties, in multiple language proficiencies, in underrepresented origins, in vulnerable circumstances, in the presence of a financial guarantor, in previous visits to the United States that featured on-time exits. What if this whole package was considered the way employers holistically screen resumés, the way universities evaluate prospective students?
The United States can lead the world on immigration again. But putting up walls, metaphorical or real, is not the way to do it.