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MPI Road Map Sketches Most-Needed Reforms in U.S. Legal Immigration System
Press Release
Tuesday, May 4, 2021

MPI Road Map Sketches Most-Needed Reforms in U.S. Legal Immigration System

WASHINGTON — New reporting by the Census Bureau that the United States saw the second slowest rate of population growth since the decennial census began in 1790 represents a warning sign for a country seeing rising shares of retirees and a declining child population. In fact, the Census Bureau is projecting that the United States will have more seniors than children in less than 15 years. In this context, immigration will become increasingly important for sustaining the growth of the U.S. labor force.

Yet the legal immigration system, which was built on a scaffolding first established in 1952 and saw its last major legislative update in 1990, is profoundly misaligned with these demographic realities and other key factors shaping migration to the country. This misalignment is the principal cause for illegal immigration, with an unauthorized immigrant population estimated at 11 million people. It is also responsible for the mounting backlog in legal immigration streams, with some in the green-card queue scheduled to wait an impossible 223 years for an employment-based visa.

The consequences of the failure by Congress and past administrations to update immigration laws to match current realities have been enormous for the country and for its economy, as a new policy brief from the Migration Policy Institute’s Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy initiative makes clear. In Rethinking the U.S. Legal Immigration System: A Policy Road Map, MPI analysts Muzaffar Chishti, Julia Gelatt and Doris Meissner sketch the broad contours of some of the most needed reforms in the legal immigration system.

“Immigration policy should fundamentally be tailored to serve U.S. national interests,” they write. “As such, it should reflect factors inside the United States that create a need for immigrant workers and position the country well to benefit from immigration. The age structure of the U.S. population and shifts in the U.S. economy are two such factors, both of which clearly establish sustained immigration as an asset that benefits the country and the economy.”

The policy brief offers a quick tour of the new framework that MPI is advancing through its Rethinking Immigration initiative. The vision includes:

  • A meaningful and responsible reform of the U.S. immigration system must begin with addressing the challenge of the country’s unauthorized immigrant population, 60 percent of which has been in the United States a decade or more, with legalizations that could be accomplished in incremental steps.
  • Restructuring the employment-based system to better reflect economic and demographic realities and the behavior of employers and workers with three streams: 1) seasonal/short-term workers on briefer stints than current H-2A or H-2B workers but with the same protections as comparable U.S. workers; 2) direct admission of immigrant workers recognized as the best and brightest in their fields as permanent residents; and 3) a new “bridge” visa as the main route for admission for most foreign workers arriving on employment visas. This bridge visa would cut across occupations, allow for circularity and bridge the artificial dichotomy between temporary and permanent pathways. It would more accurately reflect how immigration and labor markets already operate, given 80 percent of those getting an employment-based green card adjust from a temporary work visa in the United States. Under MPI’s proposal, the U.S. government would also pilot a points-based immigration system, similar to those used in Canada, Australia and other countries.
  • Retaining family-sponsored immigration as a major priority of the U.S. immigrant selection system, but with changes to some backlogged categories.
  • Reforming the humanitarian protection system, including U.S. asylum system reform that MPI has been championing for more than two years, to improve efficient and fair adjudication.
  • Injecting much-needed flexibility into immigration levels, with creation of an independent expert body within government that makes recommendations on annual admissions based on careful, nonpartisan review of labor market, economic, demographic and immigration trends.

“Harnessing the benefits of immigration has long been a source of strength for the United States,” the authors conclude. “Redesigning immigration pathways to match with today’s realities—and building flexibility so that the system can evolve to match tomorrow’s as well—would allow the United States to better reap the advantages of immigration for its economy and society.”

The road map is the latest in the multi-year Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy Initiative. The initiative is generating a big-picture, evidence-driven vision for the role immigration can and should play in America’s future. Reports focusing on Department of Homeland Security (DHS) governance, the immigration detention system, the immigration courts and the bridge visa are among those that will be published in the coming weeks and months.

Read the legal immigration road map here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/rethinking-us-legal-immigration-road-map.

See the work published to date by the Rethinking Immigration Initiative here: www.migrationpolicy.org/rethinking. And to keep up with the latest developments in the Rethinking initiative, sign up for updates here.


The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels.