Let's Be Clear About Whom We Want to Let In

The Washington Post
By George J. Borjas

Sunday, December 23, 2001; Page B02

Last summer, the United States was planning to grant amnesty to perhaps as many as 10 million illegal immigrants, and President Bush was talking of creating a system that would allow hundreds of thousands of guest workers, most of them from Mexico, to enter this country. The terrorist attacks not only put a stop to these plans for liberalizing our immigration system, they also exposed some of its fundamental weaknesses. Officials turned out to know very little about how or why visas are issued: They could not say how many foreign students are now in the country -- or at which colleges they are enrolled. And it soon became clear just how perfunctory are the background checks that foreign consulates perform before granting many kinds of visas.

One result was the USA Patriot Act, which is designed to enhance border security; a second was a host of ideas for short-term fixes, such as the moratorium on student visas that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) quickly proposed -- and just as quickly withdrew when the higher education sector lobbied against cutting off an important source of tuition revenues. But although it is important to address some failings in the system immediately, we should not remain blind to its underlying problems. Sure, our borders are long and porous, but that doesn't excuse the United States from stating its objectives for immigration. What types of immigrants should this country admit? And how many immigrants does it want?

While the United States has proven curiously cautious about addressing such questions, several other "nations of immigrants" (including Canada, Australia and New Zealand) have far more proactive approaches to immigration: They have devised systems that are designed to favor people who will contribute economically to the country and who will assimilate quickly. I'm not suggesting that such a system would have prevented the terrorists from entering this country. Most were here legally on temporary visas, and at least some were highly educated. My point is simply that the attacks provided us with a wake-up call: We should not tinker with immigration policy without addressing its lack of basic philosophy. What justification is there, after all, for a policy that entitles a newly admitted immigrant to be eventually joined here by her sister's husband's father's brother's spouse? Yet, this is precisely the entitlement now enshrined in U.S. immigration policy -- a policy that stresses family connections more than economic or security issues.

Our immigration policy has been spinning out of control for decades. While the number of illegal immigrants has increased from about 3 million in 1993 to about 10 million today, those who wish to enter the country legally often must wait years for their turn. More than 4 million foreign-born individuals who already live in the United States legally are waiting for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to clarify the status of their residency. And the INS cannot keep track of the millions of temporary visitors, such as tourists and students -- hardly a new problem. During the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, President Carter appealed to the INS to estimate how many Iranian students were enrolled in American universities. The agency didn't have a response then; and it can't now tell us how many Saudi or Egyptian students are here.

All of these problems flow from a system that lacks clear objectives and any cogent means of selecting those who will eventually be granted permanent visas to live here. That failing became clear to me as I looked into the impact of immigration on my own field of study -- economics. I was startled to see how the economic performance (and impact) of immigrants has worsened over the past few decades. According to the 1960 census, foreign-born men earned more than natives in the labor market. By 1998, immigrants suffered a 23 percent wage disadvantage. In 1970, immigrants were less likely to receive welfare than natives. By 1998, 20 percent of immigrants received assistance, compared with only 13 percent of natives. When I looked at what has been done to rectify this situation, I found that, unlike other major nations of immigrants, the United States fails to give enough weight to the economic potential of immigrants in setting immigration policy.

Sponsorship by a relative is the surest means of gaining entry to the United States. By contrast, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have point systems designed to get them the immigrants they want. These countries award points to visa applicants on the basis of specific characteristics and then set a passing grade. The variables in the formula determine which types of people will be allowed into the country, while the passing grade determines how many. Change the test, as these countries do from time to time, and people with different characteristics will succeed. Raise the final score required, and fewer will pass. All three countries take age, education level and English language proficiency into account, as well as family connections.

Canada, for example, overtly favors young professionals. (See the accompanying sidebar for information about the point system from the Canadian immigration service's Web site.) An applicant who is 30 years old gets 10 points, for example, and an additional 16 points for having a professional degree. Some professions are more highly valued than others. Canada must have too many economists because it awards only 1 point for that profession, but it gives out 10 for being an occupational therapist.

By its nature, any point system will sometimes seem arbitrary. For instance, an aging economist might well qualify for entry to Canada if he or she had once been trained as a speech therapist. Despite such arbitrariness, the Canadian point system does its job: It selects those immigrants whom the Canadian authorities decided are most beneficial for their country by restricting the entry of persons who are "too old" or "too unskilled" or "doing the wrong kind of job." And the first cut is made by applicants themselves: "If you score fewer than 60 points" outof the 100 you could get on the test form,the Web site warns, "your application may not merit further consideration."

In addition to having a point system, New Zealand takes further control over its applicants for immigration by requiring them to become fluent in English quickly. In the late 1990s, the country used financial incentives to encourage assimilation. It required that immigrants who were not proficient in English post an $11,000 bond before entering the country. If the immigrant passed an English test within three months after arrival, the bond would be refunded. But if the immigrant failed to pass the test within a year, the bond would be forfeited.

The adoption of a point system would not mean that family connections would no longer matter in awarding visas, simply that they would represent only one among several factors. Nor would it mean that we would turn our backs on refugees who have long sought a better life in this country. But we can't get away from the fact that many more people would like to enter the United States than we are willing to admit. The United States now offers 50,000 visas annually to foreigners who apply in the "diversity lottery." Last year, that lottery attracted 10 million applications, making it, as a numbers game, far more difficult to enter the United States than to get into Harvard College. Any reform in immigration policy, therefore, needs to provide a logical basis for some very tough choices.

Being an immigrant myself, I have benefited immeasurably from living in this country. That makes me all the more disturbed to discover how flimsy a philosophy underlies the process of deciding who ultimately belongs here and who does not. I believe we should make more of an effort to control the flow of population into this country -- and to select those people who will benefit the United States.

We'll never secure our borders completely. But we should do all we can to make sure we understand why we admit the people we do. The adoption of a more rational policy for granting permanent visas is but one step in a long road. Keep in mind: The terrorist attacks provided a shocking response to one highly contentious issue in the immigration debate. Supporters of a more liberal immigration policy have claimed that some immigrants do jobs that natives do not want to do. Sept. 11 proved them right.

George Borjas is a professor of public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is "Heaven's Door" (Princeton University Press).

© 2001 The Washington Post Company