I’ve been seeing many opinions rooted in misinformation and outright lies about the U.S. immigration system lately — which isn’t entirely the fault of those sharing the opinions. Mainstream media has rarely offered any clarity on how our system currently functions. I’ve taken *several* college- and graduate-level courses on immigration, and it wasn’t until a few months ago that I finally started to see the forest through the trees with regard to our incoherent system. Even a lot of the academic research out there is based on horribly distorted statistical analysis. So this is my attempt to break it down a bit for anyone interested (some sources at the end, but be aware that I also include my own conclusions and opinions). Someone please correct me if I over-simplify anything; as a disclaimer, I am not a policy expert on these topics, and I’m definitely going to leave out important details in my attempt to make this (kind of) short and readable.
For reference, LPR = legal permanent resident, aka “Green Card” holder.
- Many say “I’m fine with immigration, as long as people come here LEGALLY” — but what does that mean in practice? There are four main methods of gaining LPR status in the U.S.:
(A) Family-based. Spouses, parents, and children under age 21 of U.S. citizens can usually become LPRs fairly quickly (this is an example of me over-simplifying). Other relatives like citizens’ adult children or siblings, and spouses or dependent children of LPRs, are lower-priority.
(B) Employment-based. About 100,000 individuals with extraordinary abilities or professional degrees were admitted in 2009, as well as wealthy investors.
(C) Diversity program. I’ll come back to this one.
(D) Humanitarian. Refugees and asylum-seekers can become LPRs after a very rigorous and often long vetting process.
In addition, we give temporary visas to visitors (about 75% of all temp visas), as well as to students, temp workers, and a few others.
- No single agency is responsible for implementing our immigration policy. DHS, DOS, DOJ, DOL, HHS, and ED are all involved. Without a centralized agency overseeing implementation and regulation, comprehensive immigration reform is always going to be difficult to achieve.
- We’ve never clearly articulated our goal for legal immigration. Do we want to admit only those who are academically or professionally successful? Those willing to pay a high fee? Those in immediate danger? Those willing to wait the longest? Those from certain countries? Those willing to invest in our economy? Those who can provide a certain skill for a limited amount of time, and then get out?
- Canada does a better job at #3 (though it doesn’t have a perfect system by any means). You could visit http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/ right now, start an application, and take the “quiz” to find out if you’re eligible to migrate. Degrees, years of work experience, country of origin, age, language proficiency, etc. are assigned various point values, and the threshold needed for migration is adjusted based on needs related to the economy, skill sets, and diversity. If an applicant found they weren’t quite eligible, some basic addition and subtraction could help them determine whether a couple more years of work experience, for example, would get them over the threshold.
- More on 1(A) – family visa wait times can extend up to 19 years. Filipino and Mexican families that legally applied in the 1980’s weren’t admitted until the year 2000, and that trend hasn’t really changed since.
Also, individuals living in the U.S. who want to help their relatives immigrate must sign an affidavit agreeing to pay back public assistance should their relatives receive it.
- More on 1(B) – accredited investors with assets over $1M who plan to invest in a U.S. enterprise and create 10+ jobs can get LPR status.
- Going back to 1(C) – the diversity program accounts for only about 5% of all legal admissions in a given year, and is essentially a lottery system. Every country has the same annual cap on number of migrants regardless of population size or migration demand. Those born in any territory that has sent more than 50,000 immigrants to the U.S. in the previous five years are completely ineligible. So if you’re from almost any Central American or Asian country, your chances of quicklygetting LPR status are about the same as winning the actual lottery (me oversimplifying again…but only a little bit).
- And going back to 1(D) – I’d argue our responses to humanitarian crises are generally slow and cruel. Exhibit A: Syrian crisis 2011-present. Exhibit B: Central American children in 2014. Exhibit C: Jews fleeing persecution in WWII. The list goes on.
Now onto “illegal immigration.” I don’t like that phrase, because no human being is illegal. Just like I’m not an “illegal citizen” because I sped all the way home on the PA Turnpike last weekend, a person is not an “illegal immigrant” because they crossed the border without legal authorization or overstayed their visa.
- There are about 11 million unauthorized migrants living in the U.S. right now, though migration estimates have been net zero for the past few years (i.e. just as many people are leaving as arriving). Unauthorized migrants account for about 3% of the U.S. population, and 28% of all foreign-born.
- Most unauthorized migrants living in the U.S. overstayed their temporary visas, rather than sneaking across the border.
- It is a logical fallacy that “immigrants are stealing our jobs.” Even in the tumultuous economic year of 2009, there were roughly twice as many foreign-born employees as unemployed natives. So, there aren’t enough unemployed natives to fill jobs hypothetically vacated by foreign-born workers.
Also, immigrants interact with the economy in more ways than simply receiving wages. They buy goods and services in the same way all citizens do, and contribute to their local communities. In economics-speak, the presence of more laborers pushes consumer demand curves outward.
- Immigrants are concentrated on the two ends of the wage spectrum — they are competing with very low-wage and high-wage workers for jobs.
As a side-note because my annoyance with this topic is running high, unauthorized workers aren’t stealing manufacturing jobs. Automation is.
- It is untrue that immigrants do jobs natives won’t do. Pay me $10,000 an hour and I’ll clean a septic tank for a week. Immigrant-intensive services like housekeeping and gardening are more expensive and are associated with higher wages in cities with small immigrant populations.
- Most unauthorized immigrants still pay taxes — many of them at higher rates than the top 1%. More than half are property owners, subjecting them to property tax. It is common for unauthorized workers to use SSNs of deceased citizens on W4 and other forms, which means they pay income and Social Security taxes through paycheck deductions without reaping SS benefits. There isn’t really a system in place to stop this, besides E-Verify in some states. Unauthorized and temporary migrants are ineligible for most federal benefits.
*Note: I’ll spare y’all the nerdy econometrics and labor econ models for numbers 11 thru 13, but DM me if you want them.*
- Since 9/11, nearly twice as many Americans have been killed by white supremacists, anti-government fanatics, and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims.
- “Sanctuary cities” experience significantly lower rates of all types of crime.
Detention and Deportation
- There are already border walls covering much of the U.S.-Mexico border. I’m not going to delve into how conceptually, financially, practically, and legally irresponsible the administration’s border wall plan is, because plenty of indigenous activists, economists, and others have already done so.
- U.S. immigration courts currently face a backlog of over 520,000 cases.
- Our detention system for unauthorized immigrants has always been morally reprehensible. Too often, people are detained following minor traffic violations. DACA authorization does not necessarily protect people from detention. Last week, ICE detained a domestic abuse victim at a Texas courthouse, which should be illegal on numerous counts. ICE raids in the past few weeks alone have resulted in almost 700 detainees facing possible deportation. Investigative journalists have uncovered horrific and routine abuses in private immigrant detention centers.
As a side note, Obama deported more people than any other president.
Recent Policy Changes
- Long rant made even longer, 45’s assertion that immigrants make up a large portion of those receiving public assistance is a blatant lie. Immigrant families are lesslikely to receive food benefits than other households. In FY 2015, non-citizens made up only 9% of people receiving cash aid (and LPRs and refugees only become eligible after waiting periods of six months to five years). Some immigrants never become eligible for cash aid, Medicaid, or CHIP because of strict eligibility criteria and individual states’ laws.
- Immigration law hasn’t changed yet, but Dept. of Homeland Security is becoming much more aggressive about deportation enforcement. The memos released yesterday (2/21) indicate that pretty much every unauthorized immigrant is now a deportation priority, not just criminals; this includes parents of citizen children and people with strong community ties. Nicholas Kristof astutely noted that we would be outraged if some foreign country was separating citizen children from their American parents.
ICE, border patrol, and even local police can now take in anyone they think could be a “risk to public safety or national security” — a recipe for racial profiling. These new policies are going to be a disaster for due process, not to mention very expensive to enforce.
As a final tangent: if you care at all about reducing global poverty, economists who study the potential economic effects of completely open borders worldwide estimate 67%-147% gains in World GDP. To put that in context, the removal of barriers to merchandise trade would probably increase world GDP by 0.3%-4.1%. I’m not exactly proposing we remove all barriers to labor mobility, but it’s interesting to think about.
In conclusion, our current immigration policy relies on the logic that measures like heavy patrols, deportations, and a border wall will deter potential unauthorized immigrants and effectively reduce the number already here. In my view, these attempts at deterrence produce too many side effects like ethnic nationalism, human rights abuses, surveillance, and fiscal waste. I’d argue it makes much more sense to first provide better legal pathways for immigration and see how the need for enforcement drops.
Also, I think it’s just the right thing to do. Migrating anywhere is not easy — foreign arrivals are usually people who sacrifice a lot and are eager to contribute. Immigrants make our country great.
Much of this information summarizes things I learned in lectures by economics and sociology professors at Wake Forest and Carnegie Mellon Universities.
 Congressional Budget Office Based on Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, 2009 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (August 2010).
 USCIS: EB-5 Investor Program https://www.uscis.gov/eb-5
 Pew Hispanic Center.
 NPR Planet Money podcast; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/20/us/border-wall-tribe.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur
 http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/02/16/515685385/ice-detains-a-victim-of-domestic-abuse-at-texas-courthouse; http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-immigration-deportation-ruses-20170219-story.html; https://www.democracynow.org/2017/2/14/criminalization_trumps_ice_raids_two_immigrant; http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/obamas-deportation-policy-numbers/story?id=41715661