As a Canadian native and a naturalized U.S. citizen, I enjoy the same rights and privileges as those who were born here, including the right to express my opinion about immigration law reform. Here it is: Its time for our country to get selfish.
Comprehensive immigration law reform has been a near synonym for legitimizing the status of 11 million immigrants who are said to be living illegally in the United States. While this may well be an opportunity to address their fate, the reforms should focus on the long-term interests of the United States. No one expects Washington to do a 180-degree turn, but this is an opportunity to change course on reform.
For too long, our immigration laws coupled with our failure to enforce them have attracted newcomers, many of whom enter the country illegally and are at the low end of the skills spectrum. We all know the result. They work for less money than U.S. citizens. We might have benefited from slightly lower prices for certain agricultural products and domestic services, but the costs include a giant tear in our respect of the rule of law.
Under current rules, the great majority of legal immigrants might well see their own life prospects significantly enhanced by coming to live in the United States, but many have little to offer our country in return.
First, we have the asylum seekers and the refugees. They are legal residents on a path to citizenship.
Next, we have family members. There is no limit to the number of close family members we admit to our country. I can understand allowing spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens and highly skilled immigrants. Our own family benefited from this preference. But parents? Why would we want an unlimited number of aging newcomers coming to the United States as our own baby boomers are entering their retirement years?
There are five other groups of relatives who, between them, have a yearly cap of 226,000 visas for permanent residence in the United States. Within these categories, adult U.S. citizens can sponsor their brothers and sisters as well as their adult children together with their spouses and minor children. By comparison, H1B visas, sometimes referred to as the class of visa for highly skilled immigrants, are limited to 65,000 per year.
Between me and my wife, an immigrant from Bolivia by way of Canada, we have 10 brothers and sisters, most of whom have spouses. They are all fine people. Several have been to visit, and we reciprocate. However, why should they be given a preference if they chose to emigrate to the United States?
One consequence of the current system is that we have an overabundance of low-skilled immigrants who constrain the wages of American workers at the bottom of the wage spectrum. The laws of supply and demand cannot be ignored as easily as our immigration laws.
A quick comparison of minimum wages with Australia, Canada and the UK shows that their minimum wages are between 36 percent and 112 percent greater than ours. Many Americans response to low wages has been to stay home and collect welfare benefits rather than to go out and work at jobs that paid too little in their eyes.
One solution was to enact the Earned Income Tax Credit, which benefits low-wage earners. Such workers may pay no income taxes, but they can get refunds of $5,000 or more upon filing their returns. In 2012, 27 million taxpayers received nearly $62 billion under the EITC. That is a lot of money, and our failure to enforce immigration laws may well be responsible for much of it.
By comparison, immigrants with advanced degrees paid an average of $22,500 in federal, state and payroll taxes in 2009, according to a study by the American Enterprise Institute.
Lets get selfish and reconstitute our laws to benefit our country by limiting or eliminating some of the family preferences and increasing yearly quotas to benefit highly skilled immigrants.
To paraphrase Emma Lazarus famous poem, our message to the world should be: Give me your clever and enterprising, your educated masses yearning to create and thrive.
Marc Landry can be reached at email@example.com.