An additional 21 percent of green cards were given to so-called family-preference immigrants, who might be the adult siblings of U.S. citizens or the relatives of lawful permanent residents who have yet to naturalize, categories that are subject to maddeningly complicated per-country caps and other numerical limits. Taken together, 67 percent of all permanent visas fell into one of the family-sponsored categories. As for the rest, 13 percent of green cards were granted to refugees and asylum seekers, 12 percent to employment-based immigrants, and 5 percent to winners of the diversity visa lottery.
Among family-preference immigrants, it makes a big difference if you’re petitioning from a country with a large pool of potential green-card holders—including Mexico, the Philippines, India, Vietnam, and China—than one with a small pool, such as Switzerland or Tuvalu. Petitioners from high-pool countries are always bumping up against per-country caps, and so they’re often subject to long waitlists. Because the employment-based categories are so tightly constrained, an intending immigrant waiting for a family-preference visa doesn’t generally have the option of, say, mastering the English language and acquiring valuable skills to improve her chances of gaining admission. Indeed, she’d be better off persuading a U.S. citizen to marry her than to acquire skills that would help ensure she’d be able to thrive in America’s labor market. Needless to say, these incentives are perverse, and the insistence that our current approach to family-based immigration ought to be treated as sacrosanct is nothing short of bizarre.
At the same time, it is also true that Americans value family reunification as a core principle of immigration policy, and they’re wary of proposals that deprecate its importance. With that in mind, I’d suggest modifying, or rather clarifying, Trump’s immigration proposal so that its merit-based system would take family ties into account. Drawing on the Canadian experience, petitioners could be granted points for having an extended-family member who is already a citizen or lawful permanent resident of the U.S., but this wouldn’t be the be-all and end-all. Having a U.S. citizen sibling could give you a boost, but you could move up the queue by gaining valuable skills, or by securing a remunerative job offer from a U.S. employer for whom you’ve been working remotely.
Read: The last time the U.S. seriously considered merit-based immigration
This approach would prove enormously valuable to petitioners from high-pool countries, who are badly disadvantaged by the current system, and it might win over naturalized citizens from such countries, many of whom are frustrated by the decades-long waitlists they’re forced to endure to reunite with loved ones, and who’d welcome a system that would reward their relatives for speaking fluent English. On its own, the case for skills-based immigration risks sounding arid and abstract. While an increased emphasis on skills might stimulate human-capital investment among intending immigrants living overseas, which would benefit them and their neighbors whether or not they manage to settle in the U.S., we tend to neglect the welfare of people we can’t see. Emphasizing that a blended points system of the kind I’ve sketched out would help Filipino Americans and Mexican Americans reunite with loved ones willing to put in a bit of effort would make for a more vivid pitch, and it has the added benefit of being entirely true.