Senate Bill: Better for Legal Immigration

Free market immigration advocates recognize that freeing up America’s legal immigration system creates economic benefits for Americans while simultaneously expanding their rights of association and contract. Increasing authorized immigration would also  help address illegal immigration by providing an outlet for potential legal immigrants who would chance coming to this country illegally simply because they have no realistic chance of winning the legal immigration lottery.

For these reasons, conservatives and libertarians should judge the prudence of the Senate’s proposed immigration reform partly by how much it increases the availability of visas, particularly employment-based visas. This isn’t a comprehensive look at the bill’s pros and cons, but here’s a summary look at how the bill would expand legal avenues for immigration:

  • Employment Visas: Current law allows just 140,000 employment-based (EB) green cards each year, visas for legal permanent residents (LPRs). The Senate bill would expand this number by exempting from the annual quota all EB-1 immigrants—persons with extraordinary abilities, outstanding professors or researchers, and multinational executives. This exemption will permit approximately 40,000 or so more green cards each year.
  • Doctors and STEM Researchers: The legislation also exempts doctors, STEM PhDs, and recent STEM master’s graduates from U.S. universities who have job offers, adding an additional 22,000 or so.
  • Investors and Entrepreneurs: The bill also creates 10,000 new green cards (EB-6s) for entrepreneurs, and an amendment by Sen. Leahy permanently authorized the EB-5 investor visa program, which was set to expire in 2015. EB-5s initially receive permanent residency conditional on their investment creating ten U.S. jobs. The Leahy amendment makes investing easier by allowing investors to count indirect job creation and requiring EB-5 visas be approved unless there is evidence of fraud or other misconduct. It also exempts derivative spouses and children of the conditional visa holder from the 10,000 visa annual quota, more than doubling its availability as well.
  • Exempt Employment-Based Visas: Importantly, the bill exempts all children and spouses of EB green card holders from the annual quotas. More than half the total EB visas are awarded to derivative beneficiaries of the initial card holder, meaning this exemption would more than double the EB green card quota from 150,000 to 300,000 plus 66,000 exemptions or so.
  • Merit-Based Visas: On top of these new EBVs, the bill creates 120,000 new merit-based permanent residency visas (MBVs), a number that can increase at a rate of 5 percent per year in any year where the quota is less than 75 percent of the number of applications and unemployment is less than 8.5 percent—up to 250,000. At this rate, it would take at least 15 years to increase the quota to 250,000.  Assuming unemployment stays low and application rates are high, 150,934 MBVs would be admitted per year over the next decade.
  • Eliminating the backlog: For the first four years, MBVs would be used to clear the backlog in the EB-3 category for professional, skilled, and low-skilled workers. In 2022 and 2023, allocations of MBVs will be made to clear the remaining backlogs in the 3rd and 4th family-based preference categories that date from before the bill’s enactment.
  • More Non-Employment Visas: The Senate proposal cuts non-EB immigration categories. Diversity green cards (55,000) for underrepresented countries, mainly Africa, would end within a year. Green cards for siblings and married children over age 31 would be eliminated, but at the same time, the legislation expands the immediate family category to include all children and spouses of LPRs, about 170,000 per year. Ultimately, this means that family-based immigration will increase by about 100,000 per year.
  • Guest workers: The bill also increases a variety of nonimmigrant visas (NIVs), such as the H-1B high-skilled temporary worker visa from 85,000 to 140,000 with the potential to increase to 210,000. New three year agricultural visas and temporary work visas will bring in more than 78,583 new guest workers over the next four years, a number that could increase to 282,000 thereafter. Smaller guest work visa programs for nurses (300), retirees, language teachers (up to 5,000), treaty country work visas (5,000), sub-Saharan Africans (10,600), Tibetans (5,000), victims of abuse (8,000), and an uncapped entrepreneurship nonimmigrant visa. These visas are temporary, but many immigrants (250,000 in 2011) marry U.S. citizens, which could result in many of these temporary immigrants becoming permanent.
  • Legalized immigrants: Lastly, the bill will grant registered provisional immigrant (RPI) status to any unlawfully present immigrant who has no criminal history (immigration violations are civil offenses) and has maintained continuous residence in the U.S. for the last year and a half (since 12/31/2011) or any deported immigrant who is also the child, parent or spouse of a U.S. citizen or LPR. All told, this might result in 12 to 15 million immigrants being legalized and granted work authorization status.

Free market conservatives should consider these new workers major assets to the economy. Many studies have found that new immigrants—both high and low-skilled—create huge economic gains for U.S. citizens. Free markets, by necessity, must transcend borders, and this bill makes modest strides toward making that possible.