Publication Date

4-1-2010

Abstract

[Excerpt] Four major principles underlie current U.S. policy on permanent immigration: the reunification of families, the admission of immigrants with needed skills, the protection of refugees, and the diversity of admissions by country of origin. These principles are embodied in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The INA specifies a complex set of numerical limits and preference categories that give priorities for permanent immigration reflecting these principles. Legal permanent residents (LPRs) refer to foreign nationals who live permanently in the United States.

During FY2008, a total of 1.1 million aliens became LPRs in the United States. Of this total, 64.7% entered on the basis of family ties. Other major categories in FY2008 were employment-based LPRs (including spouses and children) at 15.0%, and refugees/asylees adjusting to LPR status at 15.0%. Over 17% of all LPRs come from Mexico, which sent 189,989 LPRs in FY2008.

Substantial efforts to reform legal immigration have failed in the recent past, prompting some to characterize the issue as a “zero-sum game” or a “third rail.” The challenge inherent in reforming legal immigration is balancing employers’ hopes to increase the supply of legally present foreign workers, families’ longing to re-unite and live together, and a widely shared wish among the various stakeholders to improve the policies governing legal immigration into the country. Whether the Congress will act to alter immigration policies—either in the form of comprehensive immigration reform or in the form of incremental revisions aimed at strategic changes—is at the crux of the debate. Addressing these contentious policy reforms against the backdrop of high unemployment sharpens the social and business cleavages and may narrow the range of options.

Even as U.S. unemployment levels remain high, employers assert that they continue to need the “best and the brightest” workers, regardless of their country of birth, to remain competitive in a worldwide market and to keep their firms in the United States. While support for the option of increasing employment-based immigration may be dampened by the level of unemployment, proponents argue it is an essential ingredient for economic growth. Other possible options are to admit LPRs on the basis of a point system comprised of education and needed skills or to establish a independent agency or commission that would set the levels and types of employment-based immigrants.

Proponents of family-based migration alternatively point to the significant backlogs in family based immigration due to the sheer volume of aliens eligible to immigrate to the United States and maintain that any proposal to increase immigration levels should also include the option of family-based backlog reduction. Citizens and LPRs often wait years for their relatives’ petitions to be processed and visa numbers to become available. Possible options include treating the immediate relatives of LPRs as immediate relatives of U.S. citizens are treated under the INA, i.e., not held to numerical limits or per-country ceilings.

Against these competing priorities for increased immigration are those who offer options to scale back immigration levels, with options ranging from limiting family-based LPRs to the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens to confining employment-based LPRs exceptional, extraordinary, or outstanding individuals.

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Suggested Citation
Wasem, R. E. (2010). U.S. immigration policy on permanent admissions. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.
http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/key_workplace/724

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