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Your Brother Doesn't Deserve a Green Card

James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was features editor at the Atlantic, deputy editor at the New York Times op-ed page and executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine. He was a foreign service officer and a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and President Bill Clinton.
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With his executive order potentially shielding as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants from the threat of deportation for up to three years, President Barack Obama took a welcome step toward dealing with what my colleague Frank Wilkinson calls "The Fact" -- the entrenched presence of an estimated 11 million undocumented souls in the U.S.

That’s cold comfort, though, to the 4.3 million would-be Americans hoping to legally join their U.S. citizen or green-card holding relatives on the basis of family ties. They’ve been waiting, in some cases for decades, for their numbers to be called. They found no joy in Obama’s speech. And after hearing it, they could be forgiven for concluding that breaking the law is more likely to pay off than observing it.

If Obama and the U.S. Congress wanted to help them and the country, they could let them all in -- and then blow up the existing framework of family preferences and replace it with a points system similar to what exists in New Zealand and Canada.

Under U.S. immigration law, about 480,000 visas are set aside each year for legal permanent residence on the basis of family ties. Immediate relatives (spouses, children under 21, and parents) of U.S. citizens are let in without numerical restriction. Other relatives of U.S. citizens (siblings, or adult children) and immediate and other relatives of legal permanent residents face numerical caps.

In practice, this has led to enormous backlogs: More than 1.3 million Mexicans, for instance, have visa applications pending to join family members in the U.S. According to the Migration Policy Institute, among applicants who became eligible to apply for a green card in May 2014, an unmarried adult child from Mexico of a U.S. citizen would have to wait for about 20.5 years; a sibling from the Philippines of a U.S. citizen, about 23.5 years. Set against that, a potentially dangerous journey across the border suddenly seems a less harrowing alternative.

The promotion of family reunification was codified in the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act, and the 480,000-plus family-based visas eat up most of the 675,000 immigrant visas that the U.S. grants each year. In today’s global competition for talent and innovation, that’s a blueprint for mediocrity. And changing it isn’t as heartless as it sounds. In 1952, it cost a lot of money to hop on a (propeller) plane to visit your relatives; you couldn’t dial them up on Skype for pennies a minute; you couldn’t read the same local papers or watch the same programs or enjoy the same music as relatives in your native place, much less send them parcels or money as cheaply as you can now. It’s a lot easier to stay in touch, even in effect to live in two countries at once. 

As it is, the current system actually keeps relatives apart. Take it from me, an ex-visa officer in Mumbai: If I or my colleagues knew that an applicant for a tourist visa had an immigration visa petition pending, we dinged them on the presumption that they had less reason to come back from the U.S. Net result: They didn't even get to visit their relatives, much less move in with them. Most heartbreaking of all were the newlywed wives from arranged marriages, forced to wait well over a year before being allowed to join their green-card carrying Indian husbands in the U.S. 

With today's stroke of his pen, Obama has given these legal applicants the back of his hand. That may not have been his intention, but it’s definitely the effect. 

So here’s a solution from an ex-visa wallah: In a one-time deal, agree to wipe out the existing family visa backlog of more than 4 million applicants over the next five years. Get rid of the existing family-visa relative preference categories. A new system would speedily grant visas to immediate relatives (spouses, minor children) of adult citizens and green card holders. Every other relative who wants to apply would get points awarded toward admission on a sliding scale (parents of U.S. citizens, for instance, would get more points than parents of green-card holders, and both would get more points than siblings), which would then be combined with other considerations (job skills, capital investing, national diversity, etc.) to determine their eligibility for a green card and eventual citizenship.

The bipartisan bill that the Senate introduced last April contemplates nothing so radical. It should. Keeping faith with those who abided by the law is as important as dealing realistically and compassionately with the families of those who broke it. And fixing immigration law so it operates more on the basis of brains than blood is vital to ensuring the U.S. remains a thriving nation of immigrants.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net