President-elect Joe Biden has rightly expressed the need to increase and improve permanent and temporary visas for employment. We hope his view will provide a foundation on which to build bipartisan support for long-elusive but urgently needed immigration reform.
The holders of such visas make an important contribution to national productivity. They also make up only a trickle of the flood of newcomers the nation has experienced during the past three decades. Reshaping that influx to encourage more immigration by talented individuals clearly is in our national interest.
Since 1990, the United States has welcomed 32 million new permanent residents eligible to apply for citizenship. Another estimated 12 million or so persons did not go through formal immigration and remain here illegally unless their status is changed. That means that roughly 1 of every 8 United States residents is a relatively recent arrival.
Immigration during the past three decades is greater, on an annual basis, than the previous high point that occurred between 1900 and 1914, when almost 13 million immigrants were admitted to the United States.
Immigration has been a net good for our country. Like all other developed nations, our total fertility rate has fallen below replacement. According to the CIA World Factbook, 141 nations have a higher fertility rate than we do. Our continued economic growth depends in large part on a growing workforce.
The great majority of our current immigration is made up of the relatives of permanent residents under controversial “chain migration” rules established by Congress in 1965; these are not necessarily people bringing needed skills to the United States.
For instance, in 2016, more than two-thirds of the 1.2 million legal immigrants consisted of family-sponsored immigrants — parents and children of legal residents. Only 12% were employment based, fewer than the number of refugees and asylum seekers. And half of those were for wives and children of the employed immigrant.
Employment-based immigration is capped, and those caps are equally distributed among foreign nations, creating a false sense of fairness. That means India, for example, gets a very low number relative to the number of talented Indians who would like to emigrate to the United States.
Expanding the total number of employment visas and ending the country caps are among the welcome ideas proposed by Mr. Biden. Legislation sponsored by Sen. Kamala Harris, now the vice president-elect, also seeks to move in that direction.
Mr. Biden is expected to undo President Donald Trump’s overly restrictive executive orders that have sharply reduced the number of temporary visas for employment and resulted in no asylum seeker or refugee attaining immigrant status in 2019, compared to more than 150,000 in 2016.
But some of Mr. Trump’s orders also discourage abuse of the H-1B temporary worker visas and of the legal status of asylum seekers; these orders deserve to be continued, preferably as part of a comprehensive reform of immigration legislation.
Mr. Biden also has promised legal status for the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants. Given the shaky constitutional grounds of former President Barack Obama’s executive decision not to prosecute these individuals, we think it would be wise for Mr. Biden to instead seek congressional approval of a law to protect them — again as part of an immigration reform deal.
Given the current immigration law preference for chain migration, that would controversially open the door to a further rapid expansion of visa applicants who under current law would crowd out other immigrants.
To achieve his desired expansion of permanent and temporary employment visas and the legalization of the status the children of illegal residents, Mr. Biden should be willing to revise chain migration rules as part of a compromise plan.
There are other parts of immigration law, such as the rules for applying for asylum, where reform is needed.
If Mr. Biden is willing to accommodate needed changes in these areas, he should be able to at last bring about long-needed reform to our immigration laws. He might even find a willing partner in U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has long been a proponent of comprehensive immigration reform.
It would be a major accomplishment if Mr. Biden can successfully lead the charge on this politically complex issue.