Economics, U.S. Economy

So how does America’s legal immigration system work anyway?

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Image Credit: Shutterstock

The big news in Washington so far this week is the bipartisan move towards comprehensive immigration reform. Before the system perhaps gets overhauled, let’s examine the way things work right now.

The legal immigration process is governed by the Immigration and Naturalization Act, an extremely complex piece of legislation. It calls for an annual worldwide limit of 675,000 permanent immigrants per year, although the exact number admitted varies. The law is based on three overarching principles:

1.    Reunification of families. The law provides for an unlimited amount of visas for immediate relatives of US citizens (spouses, minor children, and parents). It also provides for no more than 480,000 and no less than 260,000 visas for adult children and siblings of US citizens, as well as spouses and unmarried children of legal permanent residents, or LPRs. The chart below, from the Immigration Policy Center, spells out exactly how those 260,000-480,000 visas are assigned.

1.28.13 Immigration Family-Based System

2)    Attracting immigrants with skills useful to the economy. In addition to granting over 20 different types of temporary work visas to non-immigrants, the INA provides 140,000 permanent employment-based visas each year. These are divided into five preferences as outlined in the chart below.

1.28.13 Immigration Permanent Employment-Based Preference System

3)    Protecting refugees. Refugees are admitted to the US based on a “well-founded fear of persecution” in their home countries. The president and Congress determine the numerical ceiling for refugee admissions each year. Additionally, people already within the US who were persecuted or face persecution should they return home may apply for asylum. They must petition for asylum within one year of arriving in America and there is no limit to the number of individuals who may be granted asylum.

The law also provides for other forms of humanitarian relief and a system known as the Diversity Visa Lottery, designed to allow the entry of immigrants from countries that don’t send many immigrants to the US. Additionally, the law states that no group of permanent immigrants from a single country can exceed 7% of the total amount of people immigrating to the US in a single year.

On the whole, we have a very clunky system that prioritizes family connection over economic usefulness, with far more visas reserved for family ties than useful skillsets. This is especially acute among high-skilled immigrants, who are left to fight over a mere 140,000 available permanent slots each year.

The new push for immigration reform on Capitol Hill will hopefully reorganize our legal immigration system in addition to figuring out what to do with the 11 million illegals already here. As AEI’s Nick Schulz, an expert on high-skill immigration, noted in an email to me:

Advanced economies need abundant human capital to grow and thrive. But you can’t have human capital without, well, humans. Any sensible immigration policy will welcome and embrace men and women who want to come here to learn, work, and start businesses. Currently, our system discourages many of the world’s most talented people who want to live here from planting roots, staying, and contributing to American prosperity. And these people have more options than they used to — in Canada, Australia, India, China and elsewhere. The competition for talent is heating up; wise policy will reflect that fact and reform the system accordingly.

Nick writes in more detail about the imperative of human capital and the profound economic benefits of high-skilled immigration. Bottom line, our system isn’t designed to maximize utility and is not representative of the demands and competition of the 21st century.

One thought on “So how does America’s legal immigration system work anyway?

  1. Hello, I have concerns about a fellow Co worker. She’s from Bosnia and has been in America for about 14 years she just recently. Hurt her knee on the job and seems to have no assistance from this place she has been working at for thirteen years. I do understand that part time employees doesn’t get benefits from these companies. Meanwhile in her span of working there for thirteen years she’s only received on raise. I simply a concerned American for a flow Co worker. What can she do?……. Thank you for your time and hope to hear from someone soon.

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