As the U.S. experiences persistent low unemployment and a shrinking workforce due to an aging population and declining birthrates, immigrants are critical to keeping a robust workforce and a growing economy.
But U.S. immigration laws are drastically out of date. Numerical limits, by category of immigrant and by country, on who can obtain permanent residency annually have led to untenable wait lists keeping millions of immigrants outside of the U.S. Growing government application processing backlogs that have worsened under the current administration are exacerbating the problem.
Two recent analyses highlight the extent and the impact of the quotas that keep immediate families separated and potential workers out of the U.S.. Both reports use government data to reach their findings. To be clear, these reports are looking at people whom U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (or its predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service) have already approved as eligible to immigrate, but who are stuck on wait lists caused by numerical limits established by Congress decades ago.
- The vast majority of family-sponsored immigrants are immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.
- Plenty of “high-skilled immigrants” are also family-sponsored immigrants.
- Family-based immigration is the primary pathway to the United States from nearly every country.
- Although most family-sponsored immigrants nationwide came from Mexico, that’s not true for all states.
- There are nearly 4 million people waiting in line for a family-sponsored green card.
- The wait time for some family-sponsored immigrants could be more than 100 years.
- Even for people at the head of the green card line, the government is adding significant extra wait time.
- The spouses and children of some permanent residents have to wait years to live together in the United States.
- President Trump’s plan would drastically reduce family-sponsored immigration.
- America’s peer countries issue far more green cards, based on both family ties and economic needs.
The Cato Institute has released an analysis examining the waitlists in all immigrant categories, including both family and employment based. With those additional categories, the report finds that there are more than 5 million people waiting to immigrate in backlogs that have built up over decades. Some key findings:
- 28% of those who immigrated in 2018 had waited more than a decade, compared to 3% in 1991.
- Approximately 14% of those on the wait list in 2018 are likely to die before they reach the top.
- Certain countries are disproportionately affected, such as India for employment based immigration, and Mexico and the Philippines for family immigration.
The takeaway from both of these reports? As the Cato Institute summed it up:
During (the decades since Congress passed the current limits), the U.S. economy has doubled, and its population has grown by one-third. Entire new industries have formed that need workers. Congress should reform the antiquated quotas, enact a limit on wait times, and keep these pathways viable for legal immigrants in the 21st century.