In the debate over which and how many immigrants to welcome into the United States, the White House has set up a clear contrast between immigrants with “merit” and those with family connections. The first category incorporates “people who are skilled, who want to work, who will contribute to our society, and who will love and respect our country,” as President Trump laid out in his State of the Union address. The second category, the administration claims, encompasses low-skilled workers who put downward pressure on wages and increase the budget deficit while fueling gang violence and terrorism.
Framed that way, it seems obvious that the United States should curtail what Trump calls “chain migration,” in which U.S. citizens and green-card holders can sponsor family members living abroad to come here, too. Indeed, when the Harvard-Harris Poll asked registered voters last month, “Do you think immigration priority for those coming to the U.S. should be based on a person’s ability to contribute to America as measured by their education and skills or based on a person having relatives in the U.S.?” nearly 80 percent chose skills and education over blood.
But the idea that immigrants with family ties in the United States don’t have skills and don’t contribute is among the many misconceptions about the impact of immigration on this country.
One problem stems from how the administration defines skills. Trump wants more immigrants with advanced degrees who have high-paying jobs lined up for them. Those are good things, and he’s right to prioritize them.
But it’s worth noting that nearly half of the immigrants who come to the United States through the family and diversity visa programs hold college or graduate degrees — making them better educated than the average U.S.-born American.
Additionally, while this country could use more brilliant doctors and cybersecurity gurus, it also has other needs. Some of the fastest-growing jobs sectors, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are in home health care, the food service industry and construction. And, not coincidentally, those same industries employ large numbers of immigrants. (Some would argue that Americans, including immigrants already here, could do more of these jobs, though perhaps at higher wages.)
Then there are those people who contribute in harder-to-quantify ways and yet are essential to building civically engaged communities, and ultimately a strong democracy: the immigrant who starts a small restaurant and does well enough to raise money for the local elementary school; the police officer working the extra shifts in the toughest neighborhoods; the 9,000 teachers who are among those protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and have more than proved their worth, though they did not come in on merit visas.
Whether immigrants are engineers or teachers or own dry-cleaning businesses, their success is often fueled by support from family. Family and community networks can help new immigrants find jobs. Relatives may offer a place to live, at least until the newcomers can strike out on their own. For instance, my friend Karen, a journalist, moved to Miami from Jamaica at age 9 with her mother and her father, a doctor. But they lived with her uncle until her parents could save enough money to buy a home. Family members may also provide an extra pair of hands at work or help with child care or elder care at home.
In part because of those connections, studies show the kinship-based immigrants are the most upwardly mobile of all American workers — catching up to occupationally admitted immigrants after 11 to 18 years.
This story should be familiar even to families who have been here for generations. My own great-grandfather came from Lithuania. Eventually he brought his siblings and helped establish them in Englewood, N.J. He ran a liquor store with some help from those siblings. His son, my grandfather, was the first to go to college, his grandson the first to get a law degree. Families like mine may begin at a lower socioeconomic level than those who come through skills-based visas, but they are likely to improve their status over time.
Somewhat ironically, the family-based preferences inserted into the 1965 Immigration Act were an overtly racist, late-game effort to preserve the historically white majority of the United States. As Tom Gjelten lays out in his book, “A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story,” lawmakers mistakenly presumed, based on past migration trends, that the majority of those coming in through family-based visas would be white Europeans. (Looking back, the Justice Department’s analysis that most immigrants would continue to arrive from Northern Europe seems either disingenuous or willfully naive.)
Today, immigrants to the United States are far more likely to come from Asia or Latin America. I recently met an American Fulbright Scholar and lawyer who favors a merit-based immigration system in part because he worries about the impact of other immigrants on our nation’s European traditions of democracy. But many of those who would be deemed meritorious under the proposed new rules could easily come from countries such as China and Russia, too.
Much of the argument around brains vs. blood seems based on the assumption that we have too many immigrants and must drastically reduce the number. After all, Trump’s proposal doesn’t include additional visas for merit but rather a reshuffling of the current ones. It’s true that immigration is higher than it’s been in decades. Immigrants represent about 13.5 percent of the population, up from about 5 percent in 1970, and close to the rates of the 1920s. The annual growth rate in the foreign-born population is just over 2 percent.
And yet only 35 percent of Americans want to see the current levels of immigration decrease, according to a Gallup poll from last summer. Nearly 40 percent said they’d like to keep the current level of immigration, with another quarter of Americans saying they’d be okay with even more newcomers.
There’s certainly a legitimate discussion to be had about whether to reconfigure the visa formula to bring in the mix of people best positioned to contribute to the economic and cultural vibrancy of this country. But in that discussion, we should recognize that family links and the ability to contribute often go hand in hand.