More Immigration

By Mike Koetting           February 27, 2018

I wasn’t planning on another post on immigration, but a question from a friend made me realize I really didn’t understand how immigration to the US works, or at any rate, is supposed to work.  Once I looked it into it, I realized that this post should have preceded—or perhaps replaced—my previous post.

On the other hand, I also realized that some of the details here are relevant to the current political discussions and I might not be alone in not understanding how the system is supposed to work.  So, despite some repetition from my previous post, I think it is worth sharing.  I certainly wouldn’t want to pass this off as the definitive word on this matter—this stuff is complicated—but I think it’s in the ballpark.

In general

The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 sets the number of legal immigrants into the country at 675,000 annually.  But it, and subsequent legislation, created a number of exceptions and additions.  In recent practice, it has worked out to about 1 million legal immigrants per year, about ¾ of whom will go on to become citizens eventually.

But legal immigration is via particular categories.  The graph below shows the distribution of immigrants entering the county legally in 2013, which appears typical of recent years.

Entering Legal Permanent Residents by Eligibility Category (FY 2013)

 Immigration CategoriesTotal Number = 991K

Source:  Congressional Research Service


Individual categories are addressed below:

  • Obviously, the biggest group is the Immediate Family immigrants, accounting for more than 400K immigrants. This group includes spouses, minor children and parents of adult citizens. This group is guaranteed immigrant status and is the primary reason why total immigrants exceed 675K.
  • The next largest group is the Family Preference Group. The rules surrounding this group are mind-numbingly complicated, but many of the provisions effectively cancel each other out and the number will typically wind up about 226K.  This category includes adult children and siblings of US citizens, and spouses and minor children from Legally Permanent Residents who are not citizens.  There is no guarantee of admission under this program.  In fact, due to an overlaying set of restrictions on how many immigrants can come from any one country in a given year, it may take years and years to get accepted via this route.  For instance, to immigrate from the Philippines in this category typically requires more than a 20- year wait after your eligibility is certified. It is also interesting that for a relative to be admitted under this program, the sponsoring family member must show some ability to support both his/her family and the immigrating family member, albeit at a relatively low level.
  • About 140K immigrants come on the basis of applications from employers. Most of these (between 80K and 100K) are relatively skilled.  All of them presumably have jobs waiting.  Note, however, that the 140K includes the immediate family members of the applicant, so the number of jobs being filled by these immigrants is lower than 140K.
  • Another 50K or so come via the lottery for countries that have not sent large numbers of citizens in the previous five years. To participate in the lottery, an applicant must be able to show some skill-based income capabilities.
  • Finally, there is the refugee and asylee population—about 120K.

Slightly more than half of all immigrants are already in the country when they receive permanent status.  They are typically immediate family members and people who came to the US on temporary work permits and were then able to convert their status.

One of the less obvious points here is that these various categories are relatively independent of each other—at least as a regulatory matter.  More Immediate Family Members won’t drive down the number of Work-Related Immigrants; more Refugees doesn’t directly impact the number of people admitted through the Lottery; and so forth.

Finally, the countries from which immigrants come change over time.  While Mexico is still a major source of immigrants, for the last several years the number of Mexican immigrants leaving the US is greater than the number arriving.  India is now the country sending most immigrants to the U.S. and Asian immigrants outnumber Hispanic immigrants by about 25%.

What Follows from That?

Back to my last post.  With falling fertility rates among native born, the total number of people in the country in, say, 2050, is heavily dependent on how many immigrants we let in.  So the key question is what size population do we want?  If we don’t change the immigration rules, the best guess is that we will have about 410M people in 2050, about 27% more than the current population.  If we want fewer people—because of the heavy environmental footprint of Americans, the possible constraint of opportunities for native born, or concern for general crowding–the most straightforward way to achieve this is to limit immigration.  That would require deciding what category of immigrants to reduce.

I can’t imagine limiting the Immediate Relatives category and, as I argued last post, I think the Refugee and Asylee number should not be limited.  It is our duty to share in the world’s misfortunes, particularly since we have been involved in so many of them.  I have concerns about using the Employment category to entice so many talented people from their own countries, but it is probably in our national interest to allow talented people to settle here and there are clear economic benefits.

That leaves the Diversity Lottery and the Family Preference Categories, which between them account for about one-quarter of the immigrants.  For what it’s worth, if I were going to limit population growth, that’s where I would recommend.

Or, one could decide that as a society we would rather have more people.  More workers would probably be better for the economy, at least in the short term. Then we wouldn’t have to cut or might even add immigrants.  What cannot be glossed over is that decisions about immigration are really decisions about what size population we want over the next 25 years.  Failure to ground the discussion in that context, including its implications, is policy malpractice.

I also reiterate from my last post that the entire above discussion is about legal immigrants.  Concerning illegal immigrants, I have several thoughts:

  • Those that are already settled here are part of the population. Removing them is inefficient, and, frankly, exploitive of the investments and social contributions they have already made.
  • It is true that they have cheated to get here. But looking back into history raises all kinds of problems.  It is far-fetched to ask what would happen if the Indians wanted to deport all the illegal immigrants.  But it illustrates the tricky nature of the issue.  The structure of the current immigration law is such that no one was kept out by illegal immigration, so any argument about “fairness” is simply a desire to punish people who cheated.
  • I have fewer concerns about removing undocumented immigrants who get across the border but don’t have roots or who are committing real crimes. Not sure how to handle practically, but the evening news provides plenty of examples where we are making a hash of it and deporting people who have roots and are, in fact, contributing members of society.
  • All this discussion about immigration policy is undercut if we don’t control our borders. One of the major problems with not “settling up” on immigration is that we have no bright line that says “after this, the game is different.”  I am perfectly comfortable with a firm position on illegal immigration, once we have arrived at a fair disposition of the current population of the undocumented.  In the meantime, it is hard to have a conversation that isn’t a moral swamp.

Turning back the clock for the sake of some imagined halcyon days of national homogeneity is economic and moral foolishness.  But letting the pot seethe at its current low boil is equally foolish.  It is time for the nation to make some clear decisions about immigration.  I don’t think there is a set of choices that will make everyone happy.  But not making any choices will leave everyone unhappy.  And, in many cases, uncertain and fearful.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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