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Kinship Emerges as Immigration Flashpoint

18 Jan

By Greg Ip, The Wall Street Journal

A foreigner who immigrates to the U.S. doesn’t just get a shot at a better life. That person also in effect gets a voucher with which to share the prospect of a future in the U.S. with relatives.

That is the essence of family reunification, the channel by which most immigrants have come to the U.S. since the 1960s. It is a source of growing dissatisfaction with the immigration system.

Chain migration, as critics refer to successive rounds of family-based admissions, tilts the immigrant pool away from young, skilled workers best equipped to prosper and assimilate. It is a key reason so many reformers envy Australia and Canada, two countries that accept more than twice as many migrants per capita as the U.S. while allocating a smaller share of those slots to family members.

Lately, the case against family-based migration has taken a strident turn. Immigration restrictionists, including President Donald Trump, portray it as a conduit for terrorism and crime. It is a charge built on flimsy evidence that evokes the xenophobia of a century ago.

In 1924, Congress imposed quotas on immigrants according to national origin to halt the influx of southern and eastern Europeans that nativists considered racially inferior, a threat to native-born workers and riddled with communist sympathizers. By virtually slamming the door shut on newcomers, lawmakers aimed to maintain western and northern Europeans’ ethnic majority.

By the 1960s the national origins system had become a source of shame. Determined to extend the cause of civil rights to immigration, then-President Lyndon Johnson declared in 1964, “A nation that was built by the immigrants of all lands can ask those who now seek admission: ‘What can you do for our country?’ But we should not be asking: ‘In what country were you born?’”

The Immigration Act of 1965 replaced national origin with criteria based on skill and family ties. The definition of family was expanded, from spouses and small children to include adult children, siblings and parents.

This was actually a concession to nativists. Most of the foreign born at the time came from Europe and they were expected to sponsor the most family members. But most European-born people were too old to have many relatives to sponsor. Instead, as Marta Tienda, a demographer at Princeton University, has documented, the provision’s effect was first felt when Asian workers who came under employment visas then sponsored their parents. The pattern was later repeated by Latin American workers, including illegal workers legalized in 1986.

Ms. Tienda found that sponsorship of parents tended to raise the average age of these immigrants. A report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development notes family-based immigrants were on average less educated, less fluent in English and less likely to be employed than employment-based immigrants, though employment rose with time.

The U.S. has long admitted immigrants for noneconomic reasons, for instance to give shelter to victims of persecution and war and to reunite divided families. The policy is driven in part by a simple belief that immigrants—no matter the reason for moving—possess a fierce determination to improve their lives, which makes all of the country stronger.

In a legal sense, family migrants don’t displace skilled migrants or refugees since all are subject to different caps. Since 2007, family-based admissions have fluctuated around 800,000 a year and employment-based around 150,000. But in a political sense, family migrants do displace skilled migrants. Every country has a finite appetite for immigrants and the more that inflow is filled by family migrants, the less the appetite for refugees or skilled workers.

This leads to the elements of a compromise: narrow the criteria for family migration, as restrictionists want, while expanding the number of skilled migrants as liberalizers have urged. While the total pool could remain around 1 million, the nation’s aging native-born workforce easily justifies a far larger intake. Extended family could still come, but under stricter criteria.

Above a quota, Australia charges sponsors a hefty fee for elderly parents to defray the cost of social services. Aspiring immigrants to Canada get credit under its point system if they already have relatives there.

Yet many restrictionists want to end chain migration to reduce, not maintain or expand, overall immigration. It is a key factor holding up a deal to legalize 690,000 illegal immigrants, known as Dreamers, who arrived as children, even though most wouldn’t or couldn’t sponsor relatives other than spouses.

Mr. Trump has already signaled that his opposition to chain migration isn’t about economics. This week his administration released a report that attributed 73% of 549 terrorist acts convicted in U.S. courts between the Sept. 11, 2001, attack at the World Trade Center and 2016, to the foreign born, many family migrants.

The methodology seems crafted to accentuate the threat: it excluded domestic acts of terrorism (such as by white supremacists) and included acts carried out on foreign soil. Many of the convicted were planning or supporting terrorism; they didn’t kill or injure anyone.

The actual number of deaths in the U.S. attributable to foreign-born terrorists since the start of 2002 is 34, according to Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute, meaning you were 1,641 times more likely to be killed in a garden-variety homicide.

When an entire class of the foreign born is vilified on such dubious grounds, it severs the debate from hard-nosed economic and public policy considerations, and puts reasoned agreement even further out of reach.