To begin fixing America’s broken system, we must be guided by both our highest values and our economic needs. We must also recognize that those needs will evolve over time—and our laws must continually evolve with them.
By Demetrios G. Papademetriou
The United States, with more than 40 million foreign-born, a number that includes the estimated 11 million illegal residents, is not just the largest immigration player in the world; it’s larger than the next four largest players combined. Because immigration amounts to social engineering, how well we do it has profound consequences for huge swaths of our society, from education to health care to economic growth to foreign relations. Most important, how a country treats its immigrants is a powerful statement to the world about its values and the principles by which it stands.
On all these counts, recent U.S. immigration policy has been more notable for its failures than its successes. Almost half a century ago, in 1965, we reversed the discriminatory policies that over the course of the previous 80 years had either barred or otherwise discouraged non-Europeans from immigrating to the United States. We made a commitment to a policy of neutrality (nondiscrimination) with regard to the ethnicity, country of origin, and race of those who could come here. Although we passed substantial legislation in 1986, focusing on illegal immigration, and 1990, focusing on labor migration, we have been unable to reorient policies since then in ways that reflect and adapt to the vast changes in the U.S. and global economies.
Some may see this stasis as standing by the 1965 legislation’s commitment to American families and American workers. Most, however, see it as it is:
First, as a system whose commitment to family reunification is a false promise for all but the closest family members of U.S. citizens (spouses, minor children, and parents). A U.S. citizen trying to bring in her adult unmarried children or adult married children has to wait 7 to 24 years. A lawful permanent resident—that is, a holder of a green card—has to wait more than 2 years to reunify with her spouse and her minor child and between 8 and 20 years to reunify with her adult unmarried child. This creates a powerful incentive to break immigration laws, and they are being broken wholesale.
Second, as a system that is still struggling with how to protect the jobs of U.S. workers (that is, everyone with the legal right to work in the U.S.) but gives little thought to their broader interests, which include more and better jobs that smart immigration policies can help generate. For example, the waiting time for someone with an advanced degree to obtain a green card is between five and nine years; for a professional worker it’s between six and ten years.
Third, as a system that turned a blind eye to illegal immigration and to the large-scale settlement of illegally resident immigrants and, as a result, vastly expanded low-wage sectors and flattened the wages in such sectors even more. Together with the relentless openings to trade, technological change, and a host of self-inflicted wounds in the country’s schools and job-training programs, our immigration policies have made the social goals of better wages, improved working conditions, and upward mobility ever more distant for many American and immigrant families alike.
Read the American Prospect cover story here.