United States Commission on Immigration Reform

Testimony of Michael S. Teitelbaum
Acting Co-Chair, U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform
Before the House of Representatives
Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommitte on Immigration and Claims
May 16, 1996

I would like to thank the Subcommittee for inviting the Commission to testify today. As you know, we are a bipartisan Commission. There are now eight members, evenly divided between those appointed by the Republican and Democratic leaderships of the House and the Senate. The Congress has mandated that this Commission examine some of the most contentious issues on the national agenda, and we have tried to do that in a serious, objective, and professional way.

Our recommendations on illegal immigration were unanimous: nine to zero. Those on legal immigration reform were unanimous-less-one: eight to one. It is in that spirit that I would like to focus my own remarks, not only as a member of the Commission, but also as a professional demographer.

The Commission believes that properly-regulated legal immigration serves our national interests in many ways, and it supports the basic framework of current immigration policy based on family unification, employment, and refugee resettlement. But we are convinced that the current legal immigration system is not properly regulated and that it requires major reform to ensure that actual admissions continue to serve our national interest.

At any level of immigration, there are costs as well as benefits. This is particularly true because immigration does not impact uniformly on the nation. The bulk of immigration affects just a handful of states and, in many of those states, it affects particular communities and regions most strongly. And, like many things, much of the costs tend to be immediate while the benefits may take many years or decades.

So it is necessary to strike a balance. We believe that the way to serve the national interest best is first to set priorities--and I know how politically difficult this can be--and then to implement policies that effectively deliver on these priorities.

We did not conclude that the national interest requires substantial immediate cuts in legal immigration. Nor did we see any imperative for increasing legal immigration. The priorities should drive the numbers, not the reverse. As you will hear from my colleague Larry Fuchs in a moment, we believe that the current system simply does not deliver on the nation's top immigration priorities.

We all know that current U.S. immigration law essentially provides both U.S. citizens and recent immigrants with an entitlement to apply for immigrant visas for their foreign family members. Unhappily, this system fails the basic test of truth in advertising. For there is an enormous disparity between the entitlement to apply and the right to receive. The result is truly enormous backlogs.

As you know, this disparity was greatly exacerbated by the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act that, due to widespread fraud, ended up legalizing far more illegal aliens than promised (nearly three million). All of these millions of legalized illegal aliens rapidly became entitled to petition for immigrant visas for their family members, in turn producing a skyrocketing backlog of such applications. But it is simply false to argue (as some advocates have done without the slightest embarrassment) that the existence of backlogs is a one-time phenomenon that can be managed without establishing some clear priorities. As you will shortly hear in some detail, unless substantial reforms are implemented by you in the Congress, we can expect very sizeable backlogs to continue--indeed to grow substantially, and indefinitely, into the foreseeable future.

Along with these growing backlogs, we can also expect to see significant increases in the numbers of legal immigrants actually admitted through the remainder of this century. After the turn of the next century, these much higher admissions numbers seem likely to begin to taper down, but to levels that will still be higher than at present. And it's only fair to tell you that this projection of long-term downturn is far less firm than that of the earlier upturn; as in all projections, the further out one goes, the less seriously one should take them.

Overall, I don't find fault with the INS' revised projections of what will happen if the Congress declines to reset immigration priorities. You should expect increased admissions of legal immigrants, up more than 200,000 from the 720,000 recorded in 1995, to about 950,000 two years later (I've allowed a constant 100,000 visas for refugee and asylum admissions, which for some reason are not included in the INS projections), and then tapering downward to levels averaging about 820,000 in the out-years. To paraphrase Mark Twain, news of declining trends in legal immigration has been greatly exaggerated.

What is most important is that, despite these significant increases in the overall level of legal immigration, current policies will also succeed in producing ever-increasing petitions for immigration visas that are unlikely to be available. This policy-by-inaction will produce two highly undesirable results: more separated nuclear families; and continuing and substantial increases in the already unacceptably large and long waiting lists for brothers and sisters, which now stretch out to time scales beyond all acceptability.

The Commission concluded that neither a major increase nor a major decrease in total immigration numbers is needed during the next several years. Over the coming decade, the U.S. can sustain current levels of immigration, that is, about 700,000 per year, without damage or undue costs to our economy or our society. What we determined, however, was that we need to have a major reprioritization of our admission categories.

That is exactly what the Commission recommended--a transfer of visas now used to admit adult children, siblings and "diversity" immigrants into a backlog clearance program to admit more expeditiously those we considered to be the highest priority--spouses and minor children. Once priorities were so reset, and the now-large backlogs in highest priority categories were eliminated, immigration would fall back to the levels we saw only a decade ago, before passage of the 1986 and 1990 immigration acts--about 550,000 admissions per year--and new backlogs would not be created. We recommended further that Congress re-assess immigration levels and priorities every three to five years to allow sensible adjustments as conditions change.

Let me add one personal note. The press stories I have seen suggest that some Members of Congress were angrily surprised to learn late last month that the INS had all along been projecting that the recent declines in legal immigration it was then actively reporting would be quite temporary and soon would reverse themselves into substantial increases. I expect that some of the journalists and editors (at the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, for example) who published naive stories about a declining trend in legal immigration--some seemingly based upon the INS press release of March 28, 1996 headlined "U.S. Legal Immigration Down 10.4 Percent in 1995"--may also feel a bit snookered.

The truth is that data on immigration, and the factors that affect them, are very complicated and nuanced critters. Moreover, as a demographer, I know how difficult it is to do intelligent demographic projections and how sensitive these are to choices that must be made about key assumptions. Immigration projections are demographic projections "with bells on," i.e., subject to further uncertainties, such as future trends in naturalization and rates of petitioning by relatives and employers.

For these reasons, I think it would be helpful to the Congress to have some independent means for assessing both current immigration data and alternative projections of future immigration levels and patterns, much the way the Congressional Budget Office provides an independent assessment of budget issues.

I am not sure of what would be the optimal location of such an independent, analytical capacity, which need not be at all large (a single part-time analyst with sophistication would be quite sufficient). It could be in the Congressional Research Service, or in the Congressional Budget Office itself. I do not think it should be a Commission, which has a limited life, nor do I think this sort of scholarly, objective analysis is the sort of thing on which Congressional committees can be expected to devote their very limited in-house staff resources.

But clearly, it is important to plan future immigration policy based on some general knowledge of what current patterns of immigration actually are and what different factors mean for future admissions, including the impact of naturalization on demand for visas in all family-based categories. It would be a very great disservice to the nation if immigration data were to become a matter for dispute or suspicion between the parties or between the Executive and Legislative branches. Perhaps the surest way to avoid that is for Congress to have its own independent source of such expertise.

Thank you for your kind attention.

USCIR Homepage
Last update August 15, 1996