Reforming the American dream

Victor C. Wu

Unless you’re among the roughly 1 percent of America that is Native American, then immigration policy has fundamentally changed your life (after all, you live here now). In recent months, immigration has deservedly garnered much attention as President Barack Obama has made it a key second-term priority. Reform legislation, though, is still up in the air.

A proposed bipartisan bill that passed the Senate is currently the subject of intense controversy in the House. Passions on both sides tend to fixate on the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. But reform isn’t just about illegal immigration: Although relatively invisible in the public conscience, fixing our broken legal immigration process remains critical for America’s future.

The current system is embarrassingly slow and complex. As of last November, more than 4.4 million people, including roughly 1 million professionals, were waiting for the green card that provides them permanent residence; some have been waiting for more than 20 years.

Many first came to the U.S. through F-1 student visas. However, the number of work permit visas that allow these students to work in the U.S. is far lower. According to the Brookings Institute, 668,513 F-1 student visas were approved in 2010, while a mere 76,627 H-1B work visas were approved in the same year, only 34.6 percent of which were for F-1 students. Simply obtaining a work visa may take months or even years due to paperwork. This means many people educated in America are unable to contribute their skills to the American economy.

Many who do obtain work visas are subsequently unable to obtain green cards. Much of the problem comes from our rigid immigration rules. Despite the millions of eligible immigrants in line, only around 120,000 green cards are granted each year, with a strict quota of at most 10,000 green cards from any one country. This means populous nations such as China, India and Mexico are allocated the same number of spots as much smaller ones, resulting in massive backlogs of immigrants from the largest countries. Such a flat quota that doesn’t account for population size or applicant numbers makes little sense. In fact, the very concept of an artificial quota in general is an antiquated policy that essentially discriminates between immigrants solely based on their national origin, instead of considering what benefits and skills they could offer the U.S.

Because of such inane laws, millions of would-be Americans, people who already live and work in the U.S., are stuck in limbo without a green card. Many return home out of frustration — roughly one in three Indians and one in five Chinese who left the U.S. cited visa issues as a strong factor in their decision. This trend has been growing in recent years, threatening to create a “reverse brain drain” in which talented, educated individuals leave the country.

Thankfully, the Senate’s immigration bill seeks to significantly expand and streamline the legal process. It calls for an increase in the number of H-1B work visas for foreign students and professionals. It would also significantly accelerate the green card process, stipulating that all backlogged applications be resolved within 10 years, giving priority to those delayed the longest. In addition, the bill sensibly ends the by-country quota policy.

As a whole, immigrants contribute an estimated $37 billion per year to U.S. GDP. By utilizing their talents here, they create tremendous value and, by extension, jobs for the American economy. If anything, if economics is the primary concern, we should be trying to encourage even more legal immigration.

Of course, for the foreseeable future, the controversy of illegal immigration will continue to dominate headlines and command a lion’s share of public attention. However, whereas the phenomenon of “illegal” immigration has arisen only in the past few decades, general immigration policy has had an impact on the character and economy of America for centuries. In the long run, our approach to legal immigration will more likely be what defines our future.


This excerpt of a column was published Sept. 8 in the Harvard Crimson.