The True Immigration Crisis

A secure border won't get you more rocket scientists.

Photographer: BRUCE WEAVER/AFP/Getty Images

Anchor babies, birthing centers, giant walls, mass deportations: The debate over immigration in the U.S. presidential campaign often calls to mind a hyperventilating Hollywood drama rather than a calm, intelligent discussion.

The most urgent issue is not the cost of illegal immigration, because that cost is modest at worst. The challenge is to reform the country's immigration system -- which still labors under principles from the 1950s -- so that it works for the 21st century.

QuickTake The Swerving Path to Citizenship

It's wrong to call for this discussion to be postponed until the border is secure, as some Republicans wish, since securing the border (insofar as that's possible) goes hand in hand with fixing the system. And it's simply delusional, as some Republicans also wish, to think that the roughly 11 million unauthorized immigrants already in the country can be deported or somehow wished away.

As a practical matter, and putting humanitarian considerations aside, deportations on anything like that scale would take years and involve prohibitive expense -- both directly and through their wider economic effects. It isn't going to happen. In most cases, some way to render the presence of unauthorized immigrants lawful will have to be found.

However, this in turn requires another question to be answered: What about the 4.4 million would-be immigrants stuck in the queue for legal permanent residency? At current rates of admission, some of these applicants will have to wait more than two decades before their visas are granted. This backlog -- which grew 2.3 percent last year -- involves a big economic cost in its own right and encourages illegal immigration as well. It springs from outdated priorities that threaten the U.S.'s future as a thriving nation of immigrants.

U.S. immigration law puts family reunification ahead of attracting workers with skills in short supply. This no longer makes sense. More than half of the immigrant visa backlog is for siblings of U.S. citizens. The case for granting residency or citizenship to them, or to the adult offspring of newly minted U.S. citizens, was more compelling before cheap, speedy air travel, not to mention the Internet and Skype, made staying in touch easier.

Meanwhile, restrictions on skills-based immigration increasingly put the U.S. at a disadvantage in today's competition for global talent. In 2012, skilled immigrants accounted for only 6 percent of all new U.S. immigrant visas. Compare that with 26 percent in Canada and 33 percent in Australia.

More than two years ago, the Senate passed a comprehensive bill that seeks to fix such problems. It would shut down the sibling visa category, among others, and greatly expand the number of skilled or merit-based admissions. It would also create a path to lawful status for those here illegally, sending them to the back of the line. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that enacting the bill would lead over the next decade to a net increase of 9.6 million people in the U.S. -- and net savings of $135 billion.

The bill isn't perfect, and other reform proposals are worth entertaining. But the House of Representatives has taken a piecemeal approach that has mostly focused on punitive enforcement measures.

Instead of talking about fantastical walls and roundups, the presidential candidates should be talking more about changing the law to get the right people in, clearing the backlog, normalizing the status of most of those already here, and strengthening reporting and other systems to discourage future illegal immigration. Enough with the low-budget drama. This discussion needs to grow some brains. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.