American immigration policy has profound consequences for the
labor market, the economy, and even the size of the United States
population. It is the most enormous of our discretionary policies
and is once again being widely debated. Unfortunately, if history
is any guide, legislators will emerge no more informed about the
actual consequences of immigration than when the debate began. For
immigration policy continues to be driven by mythology rather than
The current policy, going back to a 1965 law, was championed as
an integral part of the civil-rights movement. Legislators promised
it would correct decades-long discrimination against non-European
would-be immigrants without increasing immigration levels.
The legislators were wrong.
Certainly the flow of immigration has shifted away from Europe.
Now it overwhelmingly and unintentionally favors Latin America and
Asia. Africans comprise about 13 percent of the world population of
5.8 billion but only about 3 percent of annual immigration to the
Meanwhile, immigration more than doubled between 1965 and 1990 -
from 300,000 a year to 650,000 a year. The 1965 act was changed in
1990, and since then immigration has increased even more, hovering
between 800,000 and 1 million annually. (These figures do not
include illegal immigration, estimated by the Immigration and
Naturalization Service at 300,000 a year.)
It should have been obvious in 1965 that the new law would
result in higher levels. It made family affiliation the primary
basis for visa eligibility and placed no cap on the number of
immediate family members (spouses, children, and parents). This
essentially established an avenue for unlimited "chain migration,"
central to our immigration system now.
It should have been equally clear to legislators that, as the
majority of immigrants entered on the basis of family affiliation
rather than skills, the immigrants' level of skill and education
would decline. Today 36 percent of immigrants enter with less than
a high school education, and only 8 percent on the basis of
possessing an identified skill.
But in 1965 it was more important to appear pro-immigrant and
pro-family than to ask whether the policy being crafted was either
sustainable or ultimately in the national interest. Legislators in
1996 face the same dilemma.
Nowhere has this phenomenon been more clearly illustrated than
in a recent Senate debate over legal immigration. Sen. Spencer
Abraham, a freshman Republican from Michigan, persuaded his GOP
colleagues to strike down an amendment offered by veteran Sen. Alan
Simpson of Wyoming, also a Republican. It would have begun placing
limits on chain migration by eliminating the provision that
currently allows the married adult sons and daughters of US
citizens to immigrate. …