United States Commission on Immigration Reform

Testimony of Barbara Jordan
Chair, U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform
Before a Joint U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims
U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on Immigration
June 28, 1995

Thank you for providing this opportunity to present the Commission on Immigration Reform's interim recommendations on legal immigration reform. This Commission was mandated by the Immigration Act of 1990 to examine and make recommendations regarding the implementation and impact of U.S. immigration policy.

In fulfilling this mandate, the Commission has held public hearings and consultations in Los Angeles, Miami, El Paso, Chicago, Lowell, New York, Austin, San Juan, and Phoenix. During the site visits, the Commission visited service agencies, community groups, and others with interest in immigration. We met with university-based researchers in these areas in order to be better informed of the cutting-edge research available on the local effects of immigration.

The Commissioners also held expert consultations on the national-level labor market impacts of immigration, the demographic effects, and the fiscal impacts on federal, state, and local programs. In addition, we held public meetings on the various parts of our legal immigration system, with separate sessions with practitioners familiar with family-based immigration, employment-based immigration, and refugee admissions. We undertook systematic analysis of the available research on such topics as the economic and social characteristics of recent immigrants, the impact of immigration on federal, state, and local benefit programs, the economic adaptation of immigrants, and the demographic and environmental effects of immigration. The Commission also commissioned research that modeled likely future demand for immigrant admissions. This research continues in preparation for our final report to Congress in 1997, but our work to date provides useful perspectives for interim recommendations.

Foremost, the Commission concludes that a properly regulated system of legal immigration is in the national interest of the United States. Such a system enhances the benefits of immigration while protecting against potential harms.

Immigrants often create new businesses and other employment-generating activities and, in this manner, promote the renewal of city neighborhoods and commercial districts. Immigrants also can strengthen America's economic and political ties with other nations and, thereby, enhance our ability to compete in a global economy and provide leadership in international and humanitarian affairs. Properly regulated immigration further strengthens American scientific, literary, artistic, and other cultural resources. It promotes family values and ties that are important components of good schools and strong communities. At a time of troubling ethnic strife in many parts of the world, an effective American immigration policy can demonstrate to other countries that religious and ethnic diversity are compatible with national civic unity in a democratic and free society.

Legal immigration, however, has costs, as well as benefits. Immigrants with relatively low education and skills may compete for jobs and public services with the most vulnerable of Americans, particularly those who are unemployed or underemployed. Jobs generated by immigrant businesses do not always address this problem. Concentrated and/or rapid entry of immigrants into a locality may impose immediate net costs, particularly in education, where expenditures are required to meet the additional and special needs of newcomers. Concentration of new immigrants can exacerbate tensions among ethnic groups. Certain legal immigrant populations may impose other costs: refugees often have special needs for health and other services, making resettlement significantly more costly than overseas solutions to refugee problems; elderly new immigrants are more likely to draw upon public services than elderly native-born Americans or immigrants who came to the United States at a younger age.

The Commission supports the basic framework of current immigration policy-family unification, employment-based immigration, and refugee admissions. We considered alternative frameworks, particularly a point system, but rejected these approaches. We believe that a system that relies on formulas and bureaucratic procedures for determining which immigrants meet the formula is not as effective in protecting the national interest as one that relies on the judgment of American families and employers within a framework that protects U.S. workers from unfair competition.

At the same time, the Commission is convinced that our current immigration system must undergo major reform to ensure that admissions continue to serve our national interests. Hence, the Commission recommends a significant redefinition of priorities and a reallocation of existing admission numbers to fulfill more effectively the objectives of our immigration system.

In developing our recommendations, the Commission was guided by the following principles:

1) Clear goals and priorities must define our immigration policy;

2) Effective policy means enforcement of immigration limits;

3) Regular periodic review is needed to ensure flexibility to adjust to changing circumstances in the United States;

4) Immigration policy should be comprehensible and its implementation efficient;

5) Sponsors are responsible for ensuring that immigrants do not become burdens on the American taxpayer;

6) Immigration policy must protect U.S. workers against unfair competition from foreign workers, with an appropriately higher level of protection to the most vulnerable in our society;

7) Both temporary and permanent admissions categories must be seen as integral parts of a cohesive immigration policy;

8) A sound immigration policy supports Americanization, by which we mean the sharing of such American values as the belief in liberty, democracy, and equal opportunity;

9) Fundamental immigration reform, as proposed by the Commission, requires a period of transition to get from the present system to the new one.

Following these principles:

The Commission recommends a tripartite immigration policy that permits the entry of nuclear family members, professional and skilled workers, and refugees, with additional steps to address the continued aftereffects of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act that provided legal status to formerly illegal aliens. We propose a core immigration admissions level of 550,000 per year, to be divided as follows:

Nuclear family immigration 400,000
Skill-based immigration100,000

The Commission further recommends that Congress authorize 150,000 visas annually for the admission of the spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents who have been awaiting entry until such time that the backlog is eliminated.

The Commission recommends that admission levels be authorized by Congress for a specified time period (e.g., three to five years) in order to ensure regular periodic review and, if needed, change by Congress.

More specifically, the Commission recommends changes in the components of U.S. immigration policy, including family-based immigration, skills-based immigration, and refugee resettlement. The Commission also addresses issues related to Americanization of new immigrants, with a particular focus on naturalization.

Nuclear Family Immigration

Immigration supports the national interest by promoting strong and intact nuclear families-that is, the basic social unit consisting of parents and their dependent children living in one household. Immigration contributes to this national interest by permitting the entry of close family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who otherwise may be separated for years. Immigration policy also can contribute to the strength of U.S. families by ensuring that immigrants receive any needed financial support from their own relatives and, thus, impose no financial burdens upon the taxpaying public.

The Commission recommends:

A prioritization of family relationships to determine who will be admitted through family-based immigration, with admission numbers going to those who are of the highest priority. Only to the extent that visas are available after the demand in higher priorities is met should visas be made available to lower priority categories. Following this reasoning, the Commission makes further recommendations.

The Commission further recommends sufficient additional numbers, on an interim basis, to eliminate the backlog in the category for admission of spouses and minor children of LPRs. We believe that this backlog, which results primarily from the Immigration Reform and Control Act, can be cleared without creating another waiting list. By the end of this fiscal year, 824,000 spouses and minor children of aliens legalized under IRCA will be waiting for visas. The number of new applications has fallen to only a handful for this group. However, since the filing of applications by the legalization beneficiaries, a backlog of 279,000 (or about 80,000 per year) spouses and minor children of other LPRs has developed. Under our current system, it would take more than a decade to clear the backlog, even with substantial naturalization. In the meantime, when an LPR sponsors a spouse and/or minor child, that individual goes to the end of the waiting list of 1.1 million.

Priority for clearance of the backlog should go first to the spouses and minor children of LPRs who themselves entered lawfully under the regular immigration preferences. Only afterwards should expedited admission be offered to the spouses and minor children of LPRs who entered under one of the legalization provisions of the Immigration Reform and Control Act.

The Commission recommends this separate treatment of the family members of those who became permanent residents through regular immigration and those who legalized under the IRCA because:

The addition of 150,000 visas will permit the elimination of the regular LPR beneficiary backlog within three years and the legalization beneficiary backlog in five to eight years. Thereafter, the entry of all spouses and minor children of LPRs should be possible within a year of application under the proposed 400,000 admissions ceiling on family-based immigration.

The Commission recommends elimination of other family-based admission categories, including:

Adult, unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens;

Adult, married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens;

Adult unmarried sons and daughters of legal permanent residents, and;

Siblings of U.S. citizens.

The Commission acknowledges that many individuals in these categories have contributed to U.S. society. Nevertheless, it is necessary at this time to emphasize the reunification of nuclear families. The elimination of these categories should take place one year after the date that legislation is enacted to accomplish this purpose. In this way, the plans of U.S. families that are on the verge of reunifying with their foreign siblings and adult children will not be unfairly disrupted. The Commission recommends elimination of these categories for several reasons.

The Commission recommends amendment of Section 201(c) of the Immigration and Naturalization Act [INA] to provide that otherwise unused immigrant visa numbers for a fiscal year be made available to people who have a priority date that would entitle them to processing in that year but who were not issued visas. Given the large backlog of spouses and minor children, all efforts should be made to ensure their expeditious entry by fully utilizing authorized visas. Under current policy, visas unused because of administrative delay or personal reasons are lost. Allowing such unused visas to be made available to otherwise eligible immigrants after the end of that fiscal year ensures that all the visas allocated for family-sponsored immigrants would be used and charged to the given fiscal year. The new fiscal year visa numbers would not reflect an increase in visas allocated over the annual worldwide limit for family-based immigration.

For example, if 400,000 visas were allocated for family-sponsored immigrant in FY 1997, and during that year only 390,000 visas were issued because 10,000 immigrants were delayed beyond the end of the fiscal year, the remaining 10,000 visas could be issued to the delayed or other eligible aliens during the next fiscal year but would count toward the original year. Under the proposed amendment, the Department of State could charge to FY 1997 all visas allocated in that year even though the visas themselves might not be issued in FY 1997. As the recommendation affects only aliens already entitled to a visa, annual number limitations would not be exceeded.

The Commission further recommends that the INA be amended to address better the aging-out problem of certain aliens. One unfortunate side effect of waiting lists is the aging-out of aliens while awaiting their already approved petition. This issue, which arises particularly in the case of the minor children of legal permanent residents, will become even more of a problem with the elimination of admission opportunities for adult children. For example, the minor child of a legalized alien may have been granted Family Unity status with the understanding that eventually a visa would be available. Under current law, a child who has aged-out would rarely be deported but is no longer eligible for permanent residence as a minor child. A provision stating that a person entitled to status at the time a petition is approved shall continue to be entitled to that status, regardless of his or her age, would allow such applicants to retain their eligibility for immigrant visas.

Skill-Based Immigration

Immigration can support the national interest by bringing to the U.S. individuals whose skills would benefit our society. It also can help U.S. businesses compete in the global economy. This national interest in the competitiveness of business must be balanced by an equally compelling national interest in developing a U.S. workforce that has the skills necessary to compete in the global economy. Immigration policy can contribute to this national interest by: