Fifty years ago last month, America shed a system of racially biased immigration limits for individual countries. Although it was a great step forward, Congress then replaced that discriminatory system with per-country immigration limits that were — and still are — arbitrary and economically damaging. In 2011, the House already passed a bill to repeal them. Now is the perfect time for Congress to finish the job.
Per-country quotas restrict individuals from any single country seeking to come to the U.S. to no more than 7 percent of the green cards available in any category in any year. This restriction favors those from small countries at the expense of those from larger ones. By treating nationality as the relevant factor, India is treated equally with Luxembourg, but Indian immigrants are massively disadvantaged.
Equality in theory, inequality in practice. It is a system of expedited processing for people from less populous countries; it is arbitrary and unfair. The large countries that are most disadvantaged — the Philippines, India, China and Mexico — are all non-European nations that, until recently, had little ethnic representation in the U.S.
While the issue is ignored, the lines for visas have stretched to absurd lengths. Adult children of U.S. citizens from Mexico, Philippines, India and China can expect seven- to 21-year waiting periods. Workers from China, India and the Philippines with a college degree or less will have to wait between two and 10 years.
There are no legitimate reasons for this discrimination for any immigrants, but the system is particularly perverse for employment-based immigrants. Arbitrarily delaying hires punishes the American economy, costing us productivity, innovation and competitiveness.
A better system would treat immigrants equally as people, not as representatives from countries. It would be a first come, first serve process where immigrants move through the lines based on when they applied, not where they applied from.
Each Congress since 2011, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) has introduced a bill, the Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act (H.R. 213), with former immigration attorneys Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho). The bill would raise the family-based limits to 15 percent and essentially end the employment-based per-country limits, phasing them out over several years (so the sudden change doesn’t result in all visas going to the country with the longest current backlog).
Because the Chaffetz legislation doesn’t increase immigration, it should be unobjectionable even to those who want fewer immigrants. Strangely, however, Jessica Vaughan of the anti-immigration group Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) calls the bill an “attempt by a special interest group … to manipulate immigration law.”
Since equal treatment for all applicants is clearly the opposite of special treatment for some, CIS must have another reason for opposing the bill. Vaughan alludes to the real reason at the end of her post. Noting that most green card applicants are on temporary visas, she writes, “Maybe the green card delays will dampen some of the enthusiasm for overused guestworker categories.”
And there lies the anti-immigration argument for maintaining arbitrary per-country limits: keep the system broken, so even people already in the process will simply give up. This is a perverse tactic, both in its economic lunacy and its inhumanity. Driving high-skilled people to other countries is one of the worst economic growth strategies imaginable, costing America dearly.
An added benefit of repealing per-country limits: if applicants from every nation waited equally, then maybe the outcry over waits would be broad enough that Congress would find the political will to fix the underlying problem: the out-of-date green card limit. The cap on the overall number of visas has gone unaltered since 1990, when America had 20 percent fewer people and half the gross domestic product it has today. Updating the quotas would be the best way to fix the broken system.
Congress has good reasons to move the Chaffetz bill this year. It already has 59 co-sponsors— 33 Republicans and 26 Democrats — demonstrating its broad, bipartisan appeal. In 2011, it passed overwhelmingly in the House by 389 to 15. It died in the Democratic Senate due to wrangling over unrelated issues, but it could easily pass again this year.
Some in Congress might prefer to avoid any immigration issues this year, but fortunately for reformers, it cannot. By Dec. 11, several immigration programs — E-Verify, EB-5 investor visas, and Conrad 30 visas for doctors — have to be reauthorized. The reauthorization bill provides the House the perfect must-pass vehicle to attach the Chaffetz bill to get it through the Senate this year.
Per-country limits are a relic of a system that is out of touch with the modern world. Ending this pointless discrimination will create a fairer and more humane system while benefiting America’s economy. Congress has no reason to delay any longer.
This post first appeared at The Hill on November 4, 2015.