On January 25, 2018, the White House released a proposal to drastically reduce legal immigration to the United States by almost half a million green cards each year. The plan eliminates about 400,000 visas from family-based immigration categories and another 50,000 visas from the diversity visa lottery program. Such aggressive cuts to legal immigration have not been seen in the United States in a century and would have devastating consequences on the U.S. economy and society.
In the 1920s, growing nativist sentiments led to huge cuts in legal immigration. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and Immigration Act of 1924 sought to maintain ethnic homogeneity by favoring immigration from northern European countries while severely restricting immigration from other regions. The national origin quotas had an immediate impact, reducing the U.S. immigrant population from about 14 million in the 1930s to a low-point in the 1970s of less than 10 million.
The quotas radically shifted the demographic composition of America. From the 1860s until the 1920s, immigrants comprised about 13 to 15 percent of the U.S. population, but the quotas drove the immigrant population down to a low of 4.7 percent by the 1970s. Only after Congress abolished the quotas in 1965, did immigration levels increase again, finally reaching the level of 13 percent in 2010.
Now the White House is justifying such severe cuts to legal immigration with the same kind of arguments people used in the 1920s. In his State of the Union address, the President painted a dark picture of the United States as a nation wracked by gang violence and criminal activity, blaming it on immigrants. In fact, immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the native-born population.
Administration officials have also attacked the family-based immigration system as a threat to national security, but family-sponsored immigrants go through the same rigorous screening procedures as other immigrants that include in-person interviews and security and background checks. They fail to explain that family-based immigration is one of the key drivers of America's success, fueling our global leadership in innovation.
Perhaps most harmful though to the longstanding American ideal of reuniting families is the falsehood that a single immigrant can bring in extended family by the dozens. The truth is that current law allows only U.S. citizens and permanent residents to reunify with their spouses, parents, and children. U.S. citizens can also petition for their siblings.
No one can bring an aunt, uncle, cousin, grandparent or other extended family. Most of the family-based immigration categories are capped annually, typically requiring U.S. citizens and permanent residents to wait years, even decades, to reunify with family. Despite its rhetoric, the White House is not actually targeting extended family. Instead, its plan bans close family members and would block American citizens from ever reuniting with their parents, adult children, or siblings.
Not only will the White House plan keep thousands of American families separated from loved ones, but it will isolate our nation from the global economy, from international entrepreneurs and businesspeople, and most importantly from an immigrant labor force that will be critical to the future growth of our economy.
For most of the past half-century, Baby Boomers have been the main driver of the nation's expanding workforce. But as the Boomer generation heads into retirement, the increase in the potential labor force will slow markedly, and immigrants will be essential to grow the nation's workforce. Without new immigrants the number of U.S. workers will decline over the next two decades according to the Pew Research Center. While the President's plan does not cut all legal immigration, in that same period it would cut nearly 5 million working-age workers.
Simply put, this proposal is not good for our country. At a time when our economy desperately needs new workers to sustain growth, the President plans to cut off our much-needed labor supply. Even more troubling is the undeniable harm it will do to American families as well as the anti-immigrant motivations behind it. Our nation must not be forced back 100 years in history to a bygone era when there were no laws protecting against discrimination and exclusion based on race, ethnicity and national origin. Americans and our families deserve better than that.
Gregory Chen is Director of Government Relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).
AILA provides a policy brief on the family-based immigration system, which addresses how the system works and the importance of family unity in U.S. history and values. The brief also discusses the myth of "chain migration" and the consequences of recent proposals to restrict family immigration.