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I Studied Here, Then Was Forced to Leave. Will No One Fix America’s Insane Immigration System?

Jakarta—Despite the boom of recent years, Indonesia is still the sort of place from which young people seek to escape. Nearly all Indonesians who can afford it send their children to study in universities abroad, and my parents were no different. But where many of my former classmates have since become Canadians and Australians, I am again in Jakarta. Like most of the Indonesians I know who studied in the United States, I had trouble staying there after graduating. Many of these would-be Americans are now doing exceptional things elsewhere. One person who was denied a visa to the United States is now back in Indonesia, founding his own tech company. Another went to the Netherlands and is working on a software platform to sell to Indonesian companies. They would have preferred to be making contributions to the United States, but the American immigration system wouldn’t permit it. 

No one can deny that immigration is a major political issue in the U.S.—it has, in some respects, dominated this year’s Republican presidential primary—but it’s lamentable how narrowly the issue is usually defined. Much of the American public is obsessed with the specter of poor, illegal immigrants, but there is little attention paid to the byzantine system for skilled migrants. There is a bipartisan skilled immigration plan sponsored by Charles Schumer and Mike Lee currently meandering through the Senate, but its prospects, like all recent immigration reform efforts, are dim.

In the absence of reform, the American immigration system will remain what it is—the product of a series of accidents and miscalculations by policymakers. From the preferences for family unification that have come to dominate America’s immigration system to the absurd lotteries that determine green cards, the overall picture is unflattering: of a country on autopilot, with a civil service incapable of formulating a long-term strategic plan in the national interest, and with rabid interest groups jockeying for narrow victories. There’s no perfect way to determine how many family members, skilled migrants, refugees, or other groups America should admit—broader questions of economic vitality, social justice, belonging, and obligation all need to play a part—but as it stands, there’s simply no coherence at all.

THE UNITED STATES’ modern immigration system was born in the postwar era with the abolition of the ethnic quota system that favored Europeans. Conservatives and patriotic groups were initially opposed to the 1965 reform to abolish quotas, but they eventually relented, in part because they imagined the concept of family reunification would help to freeze the ethnic landscape in the 1960s. “Do you not agree with me that it would be vastly easier for us to assimilate into American life an Englishman than it would be to assimilate a person from Indonesia?” asked Senator Sam Ervin, a notable conservative in the hearings, about people like myself. “I think immigration should be restricted to those who have relatives already in this country. I think that we should have our immigration drawn in such a way as to reunite families.” There was a general understanding that family reunification would prevent an excess of many non-white migrants entering the country. As Representative Emmanuel Celler, author of the 1965 Hart-Celler immigration act said, “since the people of Africa and Asia have very few relatives here, comparatively few could immigrate from those countries because they had no family ties to the United States.”

The congressmen’s assumptions turned out to be completely, even spectacularly wrong. Immigration from Asia totaled about 15,000 a year in the 1950s but surged to 43,000 a year in the ’60s, then to six times that amount by the ’80s. Policymakers had no understanding of the concept of “chain migration,” which renders the composition of the native cohort not nearly as meaningful as the future supply of the incoming cohort. To put it simply, while there were many Americans of French descent already in the United States, they had comparatively few relatives available and willing to migrate, whereas the small number of Thai in America were linked to millions of other Thai seeking to emigrate. The reason this miscalculation was important is not because we ought to prefer European immigrants to Asian ones. Rather, if policymakers had understood the concept of “chain migration,” they might have ditched the family reunification system entirely in favor of a more meritocratic or humanitarian one. Instead, the country was saddled with an immigration policy that neither sought out the most skilled applicants nor recognized its historic obligation to the needy of the world (“give us your tired, your poor”), opting instead to cater to the special interests of some of its citizens.

The second accident that defines our current dysfunctional system comes on the heels of the first: By the 1980s, congressional panels began to think up ways to redress what they saw as the immigration system’s bias against Europeans. It had become clear that family reunification hurt would-be European migrants because they had no immediate relatives in America—most of their ancestors had migrated decades ago, whereas Asians and Latin Americans had “fresher” ties to the United States and could keep coming. At the same time, the number of illegal Irish and Italian immigrants in the country had grown, and powerful lobbies began to call for a solution.

The NP-5 visa lottery was subsequently created to aid nationalities “adversely affected” by the 1965 law. Because Irish groups had strong political ties to the immigration subcommittees, which among others, included Senator Ted Kennedy, initially 40 percent of the lottery visas were allotted only for Irish nationals, an extraordinary handout. Later, the program was expanded into what is now known as the green card lottery. Today’s lottery is not particularly discriminating—applicants need a high school diploma and two years of work experience—and in 2011, 12.1 million people applied for 50,000 visas. The national quotas have since been randomized, deprioritizing the Irish, but it now contains a more basic, troubling feature: America is the only country to use lotteries to determine questions of citizenship, which, incidentally, is something it appears to have made a habit out of—lotteries also decide the recipients of the H-1B skilled worker visa when the 65,000 person cap is reached. Both lotteries are partly to correct mistakes made in 1965. A non-lottery H1-B system is not possible until Congress votes to increase the number of skilled workers allowed to migrate or narrow the definition of skill to reduce applications. The political paralysis of the past decade, however, has left even a basic reforms like this impossible.

The third accident also involves the 1965 law and demonstrates the power of special interest groups in crafting our current system. As it turns out the White House never intended for the family reunification category to represent the largest category of visas in the first place. The initial plan President Kennedy and his advisor Abba Schwartz sent to Congress in July 1963 envisioned a 50 percent quota for skilled migration, with the remaining places for close relatives and refugees—similar to Canada today. But the House committee chairman deliberating the bill, Michael Feighan, was successfully lobbied by ethnic and labor groups in his district to bring their own family members to America. Unions don’t tend to favor a large influx of immigration, but the AFL-CIO and other groups in the 1950s and 1960s were comprised mostly of recent migrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, which were particularly active in Feighan’s district. The congressman, who nearly lost his seat in 1964 and was fighting a tough reelection battle in 1966, caved easily to the pressure. As Feighan told a congressional reporter on September 30, a few days before the Hart-Cellar bill that revamped American immigration was passed, “1,000 families in my district would benefit from the family reunification provisions of the final bill.”

As a result, the preferences that were unveiled in 1965 were diametrically opposed to what the Kennedy administration had imagined, with family reunification at 74 percent, professionals and skilled workers at 20 percent, and refugees at 6 percent. Today, these basic proportions hold, with two-thirds of immigrants arriving because they are related to American citizens, 13 percent from employment (of which a maximum of 10 percent are skilled), 5 percent via the Green Card lottery, and the remainder as refugees.

THE HISTORY OF AMERICA’S ACCIDENTAL immigration system points to the absence of any kind of long-term strategic planning on the issue. This is not to suggest that America should design its system to only accept skilled migrants. There is a historical obligation to the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses that makes America different from more practical settler countries like Australia or Canada, in which immigration is used foremost as a tool of economic policy and where, at least in Canada, nearly 66 percent of all immigrants are skilled.

But the United States does need to decide what it wants its immigration system to accomplish. As long as it proves incapable of considering its long-term goals, Washington will blunder from one policy event to another in a process of bureaucratic improvisation that fails to serve the country’s interests. Meanwhile, groups of citizens more concerned about their family members than the fate of the country will continue to wield enormous influence: They have already proven that their opposition can help defeat any half-sensible attempts at reform (Abba Schwartz’s 1963 reform or George W. Bush’s 2007 proposed changes come to mind). The issue, in other words, can’t be solved through a technical fix: It concerns civic virtue, and whether Americans can be convinced to change their priorities, to admit fewer relations in favor of talented outsiders and poor people. The first is an economic imperative, the second a historical obligation. The current arrangements have neither morality nor efficiency in their favor.

If the system doesn’t change, where does this leave the United States? Canada and Australia have always been open, and one can get citizenship predictably in 3 to 6 years, unlike the 10 to 20 years common in the United States. In Singapore, graduates of a “top 100 university” are given priority, and the bureaucracy delivers what it promises. In Britain, there is a new consensus that immigration levels throughout the Blair and Brown years were unacceptably high and let in too many of the wrong sort. New visa programs are emerging, including one that rewards people with “exceptional talent.” The French, of course, have always fast-tracked immigration for graduates of its elite Grandes Ecoles. Young people with the talent and means are everywhere thinking, watching, observing. Ultimately they will go where they are wanted. 

Sahil Mahtani lives (temporarily) in Jakarta, Indonesia.