There are few defenders of America’s immigration system, but people mean different things by calling it “broken.” For some, including those here illegally, it means that America does not admit enough immigrants legally and quickly.
For others, the system broke when it allowed around 11 million people to overstay visitor visas or cross the border without inspection and work unchallenged for many years. At the current rate (400,000 a year), it would take over 30 years to deport them – assuming that no replacements arrived.
Some consider enforcing immigration law cruel in that it divides families by deporting undocumented immigrants, but the assertion presupposes that the only proper place for an extended family with even one American citizen resident is in America, rather than in the country where the majority reside. Furthermore, taking the moral high ground -- Harold Meyerson calls on Congress to “stop the stupidity, the lack of humanity,”-- mistakes a numerical problem for a moral one.
We can accept the idea that the vast majority of undocumented immigrants are coming here intending to work hard, pay taxes, and follow the (non-immigration) rules without believing that this is all anyone needs to be allowed to stay. The crux of the immigration policy debate is about quantity; there are so many would-be Americans in the world who would potentially make just as good citizens as any of us that quality is not the issue. Burgeoning populations, limited economic opportunities, wars, poor governance, and other ‘push’ factors abroad are going to get worse before they get better.
The current definition of immigration ‘reform’ seems to mean a stay on enforcement or amnesty, combined with a tightening of borders, greater workplace enforcement, and higher overall annual immigrant numbers allowed. The question is, how high? Although there are definite inefficiencies and capacity shortfalls slowing the processing of cases, the ‘broken immigration system’ is essentially a problem of demand for immigrant status, which is unlimited and growing, and supply, which Congress limits to about a million a year. (Around 70 percent go to relatives of U.S. citizens, 15 percent to employment-based categories; and the remaining 15 percent to miscellaneous categories including refugees).
It is impossible to ‘clear the immigration backlog,’ or fix a ‘broken’ system, unless by this you mean letting in as many people as want to come. With apologies to Emma Lazarus, the days when anyone could move to the United States at will have been gone since the Johnson-Reed Act of 1921 (or the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882). Even if DHS were to process to conclusion all the currently ‘backlogged’ cases waiting to be naturalized, history shows that they would all be more than replaced by additional petitions from those new citizens for their own relatives.
Few would argue that it is possible, even if it were moral, to deport the over 11 million people living here illegally; but in making policy we have to keep in mind not just the hardship families endure as a result of their understandable desire to better themselves and their children, but also the long-term implications of any “fix.” A stay of deportation and path to citizenship for today’s undocumented will leave others clamoring for the same chance.
The class of those ‘left out’ is vast--there are the undocumented parents of ‘Dreamers,’ but what about their siblings? Uncles and aunts? Grandparents? What of the immediate or extended families of the 50,000 children sent here last summer to escape poverty and violence in Central America? Since immediate families (spouses, children) of American citizens take precedence from other categories under the overall annual cap, what effect would a ‘path to citizenship’ for undocumented residents have on Mexican-Americans who filed petitions for their siblings in 1997, which are only now becoming current, or Philippino-Americans whose brothers and sisters have been waiting since 1991?
Congress could add to the annual cap of 65,000 visas available for siblings under “family unification,” or give more visas to any one class, but they would have to come out of another’s pot. Assuming demand is inexhaustible, should Congress raise the overall cap for family reunification to even them up with the newly-legalized? Should they take those numbers at the expense of employment categories for which Silicon Valley and employer interests have been lobbying fiercely? Or simply raise total annual immigrant numbers to two million, or five, or ten? What is the maximum annual capacity of the United States to absorb immigrants?
These are tough questions, and ones best looked at in the aggregate rather than the specific. One cannot condemn people for trying to improve their lives. To paraphrase Churchill, anyone observing a single immigration case should be a natural liberal; anyone observing the system as a whole becomes a conservative. Still, however sympathetic individual cases or classes, there are no easy policy answers; ‘fixing’ today’s apparent inequity is going to generate other inequities (and no doubt encourage more immigrants without documents to try their luck in future). It’s economics 101: when you have unlimited supply and limited demand, someone is going to lose out; the policy question is, who.
"Simon Hankinson is an MA candidate in International Security Affairs at the National Defense University. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of the State Department or the U.S. Government."