Balancing Family Immigration with Our Economic Needs

balanced economyIn his most recent book, Brain Gain: Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy, author Darrell M. West argues that “U.S. immigration policy went seriously off course after Congress passed legislation in 1965 making family unification the overarching principle in immigration policy… We need to reconceptualize immigration as a brain gain and competitiveness enhancer for the United States.” While the book may serve as a much-needed conversation starter, West, unfortunately, fails to delve beyond the superficial. We do need to have a serious conversation about balancing family immigration with our economic needs in the context of reforming the nation’s immigration system, but West’s book ends up pitting skilled-based immigration against family-based immigration—a juxtaposition that does little to move the debate forward.

West states:

Family is defined so broadly that eligibility includes not just immediate family members, for whom the benefits of unification are well documented, but the extended clan—aunts, uncles, cousins, adult children.

This statement is patently untrue. U.S. citizens can petition for parents, spouses, children, and siblings, and LPRs can petition for their spouses and children. There is no way for a U.S. citizen or LPR to petition directly for an aunt, uncle, or cousin. While aunts, uncles and children may eventually join family members in the U.S., it is only because the aunt is the sibling of a U.S. citizen, and the cousin is her child. You may have more “distant” family members united in the U.S., but each of those family members is a close family member of someone else. West also seems to believe that one’s children become part of the “extended clan” once they turn 21 years old. It’s unfortunate that West simply propagates misconceptions and doesn’t take advantage of this teachable moment and educate people about how U.S. immigration laws function.

Perhaps more importantly, West’s tales of immigrants who achieved success in the U.S. fail to support his own thesis that we must place more focus the right kind of immigrants. For example, Sergey Brin, the founder of Google, moved to the U.S. with his parents when he was six years old. Perhaps his mathematician parents came on employment-based visas, but he immigrated as their son. Similarly, Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, was born in Paris to Iranian parents and arrived in the U.S. as a young child. Jerry Yang, founder of Yahoo, came to America at age 10 with his family.

Dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov defected to the U.S. and was thus an asylee. Actress Salma Hayek came to the U.S. for boarding school when she was 12. Madeleine Albright came to the U.S. as a child with her family. While Albert Einstein did have exceptional abilities and found work in the U.S., he was forced to flee to the U.S. due to Nazi policies. None of these immigrants that West discusses came to the U.S. based on their extraordinary abilities. While some of their parents may have come to the U.S. for employment or because of their skills, Brin, Omidyar, Yang, and Albright were certainly the beneficiaries of family ties—exactly the opposite of what West is trying to argue.

West then argues that “most research on the value of family integration is based on having mothers and fathers directly engaged in the rearing of children…little research supports the social or economic value of extended families on the upbringing of children.” Yet he cites no research at all. There is, in fact, research indicating that family-based immigrants make vital contributions to the U.S. economy as productive workers and entrepreneurs. For example, research conducted by economists Harriet Duleep and Mark Regets, based on Census data and admissions data, confirms that family-based immigrants often lack the initial earning potential of employment-based immigrants, but the incomes of family-based immigrants tend to grow more rapidly than the incomes of employment-based immigrants. In fact, the incomes of the two groups tend to equalize over time. Research has also shown that, because of their unique backgrounds and abilities, family-based immigrants are more likely to adapt to the evolving demands of the labor market and less likely than employment-based immigrants to compete with the native-born for jobs.

According to data from the Small Business Administration, immigrant women in particular “are one of the fastest-growing segments of small business owners in the United States.” Broad family linkages are critical because they provide immigrants with the “social capital” to pool financial resources and to start and manage a wide range of small- and medium-sized businesses that would otherwise not be economically viable. These businesses range from “mom-and-pop” outfits like grocery stores and restaurants to larger enterprises such as community banks, clinics, supermarkets, and food-manufacturing operations.

In sum, there is no need to put skill-based immigration in competition with family-based immigration. As Bill Ong Hing, Professor at the San Francisco University Law School explains, the two systems are “complementary ways of achieving and reflecting our goals and values as a society” since “we use immigration to help our economy, to promote the social welfare of the country, and to promote family values.” As a result, portraying immigration reform as a choice between employment-based and family-based immigration is, in fact, a false choice.

Michele Waslin

Republished with permission from Immigration Impact.


  1. Sam Wise says

    I don’t understand why progressives keep pushing for increased immigration and amnesty. It seems naïve to think that giving amnesty to illegal aliens would somehow make things better. We’ve already given amnesty two or three times, and all we’ve gotten for it is more illegal immigration and more family sponsored immigrants who jump ahead of people on the waiting list who aren’t related to someone who broke the law to come here. That’s not right.

    As for birthright citizenship, it’s foolish to have a policy that encourages people to break the law, and then rewards them by giving their kids citizenship and public resources. We’re giving away our resources that should be directed to the poor and challenged of this country. We have US AID and other funds that direct billions to other countries. When the left wing demands we continue the birthright citizenship policy, they’re saying it’s OK to reward lawbreakers. Progressives are creating a situation that will result in a backlash just like the ones that got Bush, Bush II, Nixon and Reagon elected because taxpayers see their money going to people who shouldn’t be receiving it, so they vote against Democratic candidates.

    A lot of articles on progressive sites try to make the immigration issue into a racism issue when it’s not the race of the people who come here, it’s whether they came legally or not. When you start calling racism when that’s not what’s happening, it just makes sensible people ignore you, or worse, vote against you and your party in the next election. I’m not saying racism doesn’t exist or that there’s no anti-Mexican sentiment because of illegal immigration, but non-racist people can see that amnesty doesn’t work and that birthright citizenship is a policy that was functional before modern-day transportation let people fly into the US to have a baby.

    Really, progressives need to stop acting like knee-jerk liberals who want to “do good” by allowing anyone into the country to sap our resources. It doesn’t do any good when the backlash results in more Republicans getting elected.

  2. marie says

    I agree that, with non-citizen- or no green-card-holding parents, instant citizenship for US-born babies is ridiculous.
    It seems to me that anyone without a green-card or citizenship, can be deported. And employing those who have no official work-permit (temporarily or permanent) is punishable.
    Those caught on the border or more land-inward should be placed in a refugee-camp, from where can be decided if they can be accepted in our workforce, military, or send back over the border.
    Anyone in trouble with our laws permanently deported (before or after serving their time in prison?)
    Then we have all those foreign-students. They can try to apply for a permanent-citizen-card. If they really can be a great addition to our society they might get it.
    And all of this not just for the South-American border-crossers; but for all etnic or racial groups.
    May be I am too simple-minded to realize why simple solutions seem not possible here.

  3. SJ says

    We are a nation of immigrants, and we’ve certainly benefited from brilliant, accomplished immigrants like Brin, Omidyar, Yang, Madeleine Albright and Albert Einstein.

    But we also have millions upon millions of poor and uneducated people who are flooding our gates to escape poverty, crime and other problems in their own countries, and those people are a drain on our system much more than a benefit to our country. We can continue to “clean up” other countries problems by taking in their poor, or we can focus on getting those countries to change their policies that continue to create such abject poverty. Mexico is an excellent example where the disparity of income between the rich and the poor will continue to create problems for the US until we demand change that allows a strong middle class to develop there.

    As far as skill based immigration goes, it’s not that we need to select immigrants based on their ability to help our country, but rather that we need to block the millions that are draining our resources. Modifying the Fourteenth Amendment would help in this area. As long as we have a policy that allows birthright citizenship, we have an enticement for women to come here to give birth to children that are “instant citizens, and as such, can utilize all of the public resources American taxpayers fund.

    Right now, any pregnant woman from anywhere in the world can enter this country either illegally or legally, even just by taking a vacation here, and if she times it such that she gives birth here, her kid is instantly a US citizen who can access all the social service programs that American taxpayers fund. That means if the kid is disabled in any way, he or she is entitled to 100% complete Social Security Disability for the rest of his or her life. The parent may have never even paid into the Social Security system, yet their kid can help suck the life out of it.

    Birthright citizenship is a system that was designed hundreds of years ago when people couldn’t travel easily from country to country. It was written into the Fourteenth Amendment to ensure that children of newly freed slaves (the Thirteenth Amendment) would be citizens. It’s not appropriate for today’s world where you can fly to the US, pop out a baby, and instantly access all benefits of citizenship. There is no good reason for keeping the birthright citizenship rule in place anymore. It’s archaic, outdated and a terrible enticement for abuse by people all around the world. It also allows people to jump ahead of the immigration line because all those babies and kids are automatically a priority over potential adult workers who could come here and actually help our country. And each one of those “instant citizens” can sponsor the immigration of all of their family members. This policy, and amnesty for illegal immigration is just not fair to those immigrants who abided by the laws, nor is it fair to those who are still waiting to come here. Furthermore, it does not solve the world’s problems to let the rich masters of overpopulated countries off the hook for the extreme economic hardship they’ve created for the poor in their countries. Instead, it enables those who benefit from Mexico’s poverty to keep ripping off citizens of both Mexico and the US.

    If we’re going to solve the immigration problems we face, the first thing we need to do is to stop allowing “birth tourism” and birthright citizenship. Then we can look at more reasonable ways to increase immigration based on our needs, not on the lawbreakers who sneak into the country.

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