America’s Legal Immigration System Is Broken Too

Addressing unauthorized immigration is important, but legal immigration needs reform as well.

There has been a lot of talk about immigration this election cycle. But candidates and the press focus almost exclusively on undocumented immigration, when the evidence also points to important problems with the legal immigration system.

A recent NPR chart of the candidates’ views on immigration policy only refers to their stances on unauthorized immigrants and border control. Of all the candidates, Marco Rubio, Martin O’Malley, and, most recently, Bernie Sanders, offer the most detail on their websites about their plans for legal immigration reform, including fixing employment barriers and promoting family unity. But even these proposals are drowned out by the conversation about unauthorized immigrants.

And as we know from experience with the Senate’s 2013 immigration bill (S.744), reforming our legal immigration system can be as painful and divisive as the fight over unauthorized immigration.

What’s broken about America’s legal immigration system?

The current legal immigration system keeps families apart. Children who were separated from their parents through immigration spend, on average, about a quarter of their lives without one of their parents.

Waiting times are long. Over 4 million people are in line abroad waiting to reunite with family members. Annual caps on the number of certain family members allowed in may be too low. Re-entry bars prohibit applicants from coming back to the United States for years if they were once here illegally, keeping families apart. And affidavits of support, which require the sponsor to accept financial responsibility for the applicant, can discourage family reunification and keep the poorest families apart.

If family considerations don’t move anybody, let’s talk business. The H-1B temporary worker visa program for highly skilled workers is also broken. The caps are possibly too low, the process is easily manipulated by a few firms, and there is little oversight. The H-1B visas have become a back door to permanent immigration, and skilled workers with no immediate family members in the United States have no other way to get in.

Employment-based permanent resident visas are hard to come by. From 2009 to 2013, only 12 to 16 percent of all permanent resident visas were awarded on an employment basis. The maximum number of these visas allotted to each foreign country is capped at 7 percent, which does not reflect the make-up of the US foreign-born population nor employers’ needs for more IT and STEM workers primarily from China and India.

With the aging workforce and low fertility rates, immigrants keep the labor force growing and help somewhat with Social Security solvency. The United States is missing an opportunity to attract and retain talent because our immigration system puts too little emphasis on human capital. U.S. global competitiveness is also at stake by not striking a better balance between family-based and skill-based immigration. All of these problems will persist even if unauthorized immigrants are put on a pathway to legalization or citizenship.

Addressing unauthorized immigration is important, but our legal immigration system needs reform too.

Cross-posted at the Urban Institute.

María Enchautegui

María Enchautegui is a senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute.