US Immigration Reform: Can the System Be Repaired? (Working Paper #132)

Marc R. Rosenblum, Council on Foreign Relations and Migration Policy Institute

Introduction: The existing immigration regime was designed in 1952-1965 with the primary goals of allowing nuclear and extended family reunification, and with secondary goals of permitting humanitarian admissions (which will not be addressed here) and necessary labor inflows. Almost from the start, the system proved problematic, and by 1970 (just two years after the 1965 amendments were implemented) major new nonimmigrant programs (the L and H-1 programs) were being tacked on to the LPR system and Congress began devoting sustained attention to the problem of undocumented inflows. Yet even as Congress passed major reform packages in 1976(8), 1986, 1990, and 1996, the LPR system has increasingly failed to satisfy the country’s immigration demands, and an ever-expanding diversity of temporary and undocumented flows have come to dominate immigrant labor markets.

Today’s system differs from almost 200 years of immigration precedent in two key respects. On one hand, changing technology, the falling cost of international travel, and decades of previous migratory flows have made the underlying structure of immigration flows more complex and difficult to manage than was the case during the last great wave of migration (1890-1920) or in the first decades after World War Two when today’s legislative structure was created. On the other hand, whereas early immigration legislation, for better or worse, produced a system where most arriving immigrants entered as legal permanent residents on a predictable path and with ample opportunities to contribute to their communities, recent immigration restrictions have left the system badly out of alignment with the US national interest in immigration policy. In particular, today’s immigration system fails to ensure that the United States attracts and retains the legal permanent immigrants who are most able to contribute valuable human resources, that new immigrants are successfully integrated within the United States with minimal negative consequences for native workers and immigrant within the United States, or that immigration and immigration policy enhance US national security and foreign policy interests, rather than undermining them. We recommend changes in each of three areas to address these flaws in a comprehensive fashion:

• Changes to the legal permanent and temporary admissions systems to promote the recruitment and retention of those immigrants best able to contribute to the US national interest in immigration;

• Changes to the institutional and regulatory structure governing the integration and employment of immigrants within the United States to ensure that immigrants make the largest possible contribution while minimizing possible costs of migration;

• Changes to immigration control policies and a renewed emphasis on the use of immigration as a tool of foreign policy.

It must be emphasized at the start that when it comes to immigration legislation the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. Indeed, if the experience of the last four decades teaches anything it is that incomplete or poorly designed immigration reform—legislation which “muddles through” rather than confronting the challenge of radical reform—tends to do more harm than good. Current calls to “fix enforcement” without addressing flaws in the recruitment and integration of legal immigrants are not only doomed to fail, but also likely to undermine future efforts at fixing admissions and integration policies. Likewise, simply tacking on a new temporary worker program without addressing long-term issues related to immigrants’ role in the economy and broader issues related to immigrant recruitment would put off tough decisions and raise additional barriers to broadly fundamental reform in the future. The politics of immigration also require a truly comprehensive approach: moving from the status quo regime to a system that is productive and sustainable will require sacrifices from parties on all sides of this immigration debate, including immigration advocates, employers, labor interests, and social conservatives. Only when each of these groups accepts its second-best alternative will we return to our roots as a nation that thrives on its ability to attract the world’s best immigrants and transforms them into the world’s greatest citizens.

Working Paper #132 »