The Visa-For-Sale Scheme and Other Useless Immigration Programs

The immigration system's indifference to immigrant skills and U.S. labor demands.

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 1.20.34 AMFor the first time since its creation in 1990, the "investor immigrant" visa program looks on track to have its annual 10,000 allotment fully used up this year. This milestone for the program is due to the increasing number of wealthy applicants from mainland China, a country that now boasts almost 2.5 million millionaires. The “EB-5 visa”, which gives expedited citizenship to applicants who invest $500,000 in a jobs-generating business for 2 years, is not only confusing and poorly designed but it’s been rife with investor fraud since it started. Nevertheless, because of the access a green card provides to well-known US schools (EB-5 applicants can also bring in their families), uptake from China really has been brisk. Over 80 percent of applicants are now sourced from that country, which remarkably has transitioned the Chinese from “boat people” to “yacht people” in less than one generation.

But why have such a visa-for-sale program? Former labor economics professor at Cornell Vernon Briggs says the entire concept of the “investor immigrants” category “introduces the principle that the rich of the world can buy their way into the United States” and “should be viewed as a source of shame.” The businesses financed by the program, which are promoted to applicants by fee-taking middlemen, also usually turn to junk– after all, if your business plan is good, why not just get a bank loan? According to critics, the only real beneficiaries are immigration lawyers and consultants, whose reps at the American Bar Association and the American Immigration Lawyers Association spend tens of millions each year lobbying for more advantageous regulations under this and other visa programs.

Although EB-5 applicants aren’t likely to become a public charge and the allotment’s small compared to the 1.5 million (legal) immigrants allowed into the country annually, the program typifies what’s inherently wrong with much of our immigration system today. Most of the allocation of visas under the present system fails to take into account the applicant’s actual skills and human capital. That they're skill-less doesn't matter. Further, the green card system generally fails to consider the economic conditions present in the country at the time of application – for instance, by adjusting caps downward when the country’s in recession. Such considerations should be first and foremost in any rational immigration program.

Take the “diversity lottery visa” as a larger example. The point of the diversity lottery, which applies mainly to Africa and South Asia, is simply to bring in applicants of a particular race, as opposed to actual labor market-need. Because of this low standard, over 10 million people apply for the 55,000 slots made available each year. Ironically, because of its emphasis on race and national origin, the diversity visa harkens back to the pre-1965 national quotas system, which was criticized during the civil rights-era for technically being non-race-neutral – The national quotas system was started in 1924 to keep immigration low and to ensure assimilation; it had a built-in preference for America’s settler-stock and for immigrants from countries that made up the first immigration wave of 1860-1890.

But neither EB-5 nor the diversity lottery compare in size to the equally questionable family reunification system (aka “chain migration”). As part of the late-Senator Kennedy’s 1965 Immigration Act, the program provides green cards to immediate family members and gives preferences to married adult children as well as brothers and sisters of US citizens – Apparently, Congress thought it proper to base a visa system on the idea that because one brother in a foreign country might really miss his brother in America, the two had a right to be reunited – Because of its wide application, the family reunification system consistently accounts for over half the 1.5 million immigrants the country takes in annually.

Combined, these programs form the basis of our immigration system today, however, each of them fail to consider the actual skills and abilities of the applicant nor are their allotments adjusted according to economic conditions. Despite immigration policy being essentially a labor policy, over the last several decades the country’s immigration system has more or less been functioning independent from the domestic economy and our employment situation (which at the moment, is appalling). Failing to take these considerations into account makes our current immigration system profoundly irrational and irrational policy always leads to disastrous consequences.

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