As I reported here the other day, the White House has endorsed an immigration reform bill by Sens. Cotton and Perdue, known as the RAISE Act. The bill seems to be already drawing both support and fierce opposition. CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta was so upset about the Trump administration’s endorsement of the bill that he picked a fight with Trump’s senior policy adviser Stephen Miller during the latter’s press conference. Harvard economist George Borjas talks up the bill in a Politico column today. Here I will add my own comments.
RAISE plugs two longtime, gaping loopholes in immigration policy, both unintended consequences of the landmark 1965 Immigration Act.
First there is the problem of family reunification aspects in the policy set in 1965, specifically what today is called the Fourth Preference. Under this provision, U.S. citizens can sponsor their adult siblings for immigration. It was sold, I believe, as means to reunite families that had been split up by war, both World War II and various conflicts related to the Cold War. It was anticipated that the provision would be lightly used, and that most beneficiaries would be European. Though it may seem odd in 2017, especially to younger readers here, there was considerable fear in both parties at the time that the Act would bring in a flood of Africans and Asians. But it was pointed out that the (immigrant) African and Asian populations in the U.S. were tiny, thus resulting in very little usage of this part of the Act by those groups.
This of course turned out to be stunningly incorrect. I must interject here that I am glad for this, and strongly believe that the diversity that has resulted is a highly positive outcome for our nation. But it remains the case that the authors of the Act, and Congress as a whole, simply got it wrong. The Fourth Preference (called the Fifth at the time), turned out to completely change the demographics of the U.S. Congress missed that, as they had no inkling as to the intense desire of Asians and Latinos to immigrate to the U.S., nor did they realize the high level of resourcefulness with which the Asians/Latinos, especially the former, would be able to exploit the Fifth Preference provision. It resulted in what is now called chain migration — John sponsors his sister Mary, who immigrates with her husband Bill. The latter’s sister Barbara sponsors her husband, who in turn…well, you get the idea. John might also sponsor his elderly mother, who then sponsors her siblings, forming another chain.
And of course this now wasn’t really family reunification to remedy family splits due to war. On the contrary, it is almost entirely motivated by economics. One person comes here for a better life, thus deliberately DIS-unifying his family, and later sponsors the family members for “reunification.” And by the way, when A sponsors B, the latter often settles hundreds or thousands of miles away from A, straining the “reunification” idea further.
Congress has been aware of these distortions for a long time — decades. People in both parties have tried to shut down the Fourth Preference, but always have backed down in the face of heavy lobbying, e.g. by the Organization of Chinese Americans.
In recent years there has been renewed interest, again on both sides of the aisle, in repealing the Fourth Preference. The RAISE Act contains such a provision.
The other unforeseen consequence of the 1965 Act was skyrocketing usage of welfare by elderly Asian immigrants, primarily the Chinese and Koreans. This includes cash in the form of SSI, health care through Medicaid, government-subsidized senior housing and so on. These benefits are typically enjoyed by people who have never worked a day in the U.S., absolutely not the intent of the 1965 Act nor of the welfare system.
Congress became aware of this in the early 1990s, and reforms were made in 1993 and 1996, always in a bipartisan manner. But it is still a major problem.
Canada had a similar problem, so much so that a Chinese language pun developed, a play on the Chinese word for “Canada,” Jianada. Canada, the joke went, was really Dajiana, meaning “Everyone come and get it!” Accordingly, Canada has recently tightened up, and my understanding is that it does not allow elderly parents of immigrants to become citizens and thus become eligible for welfare. A parent can be a long-term visitor, but the sponsoring son or daughter must provide iron-clad proof of supporting the senior during the visit.
The RAISE Act contains a similar position. Note too that this also helps reduce chain migration.
From my point of view, the bill has two major drawbacks. First, as I mentioned earlier today, I don’t like point systems, as they are elitist. I believe the nation benefits by having a diversity of socioeconomic classes in its immigration pool.
The second point is more subtle. Many of you are aware of various proposals to “staple a green card” to the diplomas of foreign STEM students earning master’s degrees or PhDs at U.S. universities. The immigration reform groups have rightly opposed such proposals, which would flood the STEM job market, greatly reducing wages and job opportunities for U.S. citizens and permanent residents. A particular harmful consequence would be to exacerbate the rampant age discrimination problem in the tech industry, since the Staple bills would apply to new graduates, who are young.
The problem is that RAISE would appear to have the same effect as Staple. It would give points for: earning a master’s or PhD; specializing in a STEM field; having good English; and being young — basically Staple a Green Card. (For those of you saying, as you read this, “My daughter’s TA in college had terrible English,” it’s the same point I discussed the other day: With the incentive of a green card, those TAs would go to huge efforts to develop whatever level of proficiency were required.)
Sorry, this would be a deal breaker for me, even if I did not already have one concerning the elitism.
The politically possible/impossible:
Clearly RAISE, if it ever even gets to committee, would face huge opposition from the Asian and Latino activist groups, and the wide array of entities that find high levels of immigration in their interest — the SIEU labor people, teachers, churches and so on, not to mention politicians with large Asian and Latino constituencies. But this may not be as difficult as it may appear.
For instance, I have seen various signs that the Chinese organizations have been shifting their emphasis from Fourth Preference to tech employer-sponsored green cards as a way to maintain/increase their numbers. If RAISE would throw in a provision for accelerated clearance of the current Fourth Preference backlog, the Chinese may be on board. And if a similar acceleration were done for the current huge backlog in employer-sponsored visas, the Indians would likely join in too.
The Latino groups would be a much tougher sell, though as Mark Krikorian has pointed out, adding DACA and similar programs could sway some of them.
But the opposition of the tech industry would be insurmountable. They would say that the point system, in spite of being tantamount to Staple a Green Card (albeit a finite version), would not give them the pinpoint accuracy they need in hiring for their special needs. Microsoft doesn’t hire many botanists, right?
The bottom line:
For the reasons I gave, RAISE is not my preferred solution. But it is a sound piece of legislation.
RAISE, in spite of what you hear on CNN, is thoroughly mainstream, similar to policy in several other liberal democracies. It fixes some longstanding problems. And maybe under RAISE the powers that be will decide that African-Americans can do a fine job of rebuilding a city post-hurricane after all.
Not being a DC insider, I don’t know whether RAISE is intended to go anywhere. It may simply be offered as a marker for future legislative proposals. Even as such, it likely will be brought into immigration discussions for quite some time.