USA Immigration Policy and Practice – What Needs Reform?

1608 ImmigrationAs usual, this post is focused entirely on lesser-known facts. Because of the complexity of the subject, I’ve provided a small amount of interpretation at the end. You’re welcome to your own interpretations of course!

This post contains:

  • Facts about current US Immigration Policy: both a summary and a next-level detail look. (There are plenty of further details)
  • A simple pair of case studies
  • Ombudsman Report explanations of the problem, 2006 and 2016
  • Brief examination of why the problem exists

Current Policy, Oversimplified but Accurate

Here’s a summary of the current US policy. Some good questions to ask as you read: what needs comprehensive reform?  What about the current policy is not compassionate?

Sources: Overall policy and Employment-based immigration policy

Policy Highlights

  • Unified Families are top priority
  • Most categories have no limits on legal immigration, including bringing in immediate family members, agricultural workers, etc.
  • Most (all?) categories allow unlimited number of immediate family members to accompany
  • Those who come for economic reasons need economic sponsorship and demonstration that their presence will not replace a qualified US citizen’s job
  • No limit on Asylum admissions; the Refugee limit is completely flexible, determined annually

Policy In More Detail…

(Numbers shown are annual)

I. Family Unification

  • Unlimited Immediate Family (Spouse, Parents, Minor Kids)
  • Other Family: Min 225k Max 480K

(All based on certified sponsorship by citizen/perm res (LPR) fam member)

II. Desirable Employees

  • All are allowed to bring unlimited immediate family with them (again due to our priority for families)
  • Temporary Workers (many categories, most have no limit incl ag work, all must have sponsorship/request)
  • Permanent Workers (several categories, all have limits; current total: 140k)
  • Most categories have no backlog. (There is a long backlog for unskilled/permanent workers. Partly because of our high internal unemployment situaton.)

III. Refugees

(ie want to be here for fear of XYZ; ‘refugee’ means not already here)

  • Several categories are accepted
  • Annual limit is determined each year by President + Congress together
  • Latest limit was 70k
  • Unlimited family allowed in
  • Eligible for LPR status after one year

IV. Asylum

(ie want to remain for fear of XYZ on going back; ‘asylum’ is defined as for those already here)

  • No limit
  • Eligible for LPR status after one year

V. Random Lottery for the “least”

  • 55k a year to randomly selected applicants from the nations with least immigration to the US, to give them a better opportunity

VI. Short Term Relief: Danger/Disaster/Etc

  • No limits
  • For special situations where it’s simply dangerous to go back temporarily

VII. Citizenship

  • Must be LPR five years and meet other requirements.

Case Studies

Two examples from a friend

“It takes years to process the family member…

We have a son of English friend married to American wife. They were separated for at least 18 months — Skyped daily so their toddler could see Daddy.

Also the daughter of Scottish friend with 7 year old twins whose husband is in USA. They were caught (along with over 30,000 families apparently) on the changes to the 4 year rule… need 6 years married in UK with high enough income to be given residence in UK. She has MS so cannot get medical insurance cover in USA. That’s two families separated just among our friends.

Immigration rules might make sense on a global view but are positively evil in damaging family life.”

Is Policy The Problem?

My friend’s two examples, policywise and legally speaking, are extremely simple:

  • US Immigration top policy priority is family reunification
  • The “anchor” person (wife or husband in these cases) is legally an American citizen. This is, or should be, simple. (It would also be the case if the “anchor” were an LPR – Long term Perm Resident — aka Green Card holder.)
  • They have applied to bring in a spouse and minor children.
  • The law and policy says: there is NO annual limit, and the only economic req’t is for spousal support, minor children are always allowed in.

Where Is The Problem?

Let’s dig in a little more. You will learn something disheartening but hopefully not surprising.

If you are surprised, please consider who has been hiding this from you.

First, some insight from the 2006 (!!!) Immigration Ombudsman Report (mostly on page 9): the Ombudsman provided a number of examples showing how USCIS does not include many of the long-pending petitions as part of its backlog. Congress put on pressure to reduce processing backlogs, so USCIS continually redefined “backlog” to exclude more and more delayed cases. The Ombudsman — and the DHS Inspector General — were quite concerned about this, saying “these definitional changes hide the true problem and need for change.” The Ombudsman further noted (page iii): “Legitimate customers pay for services they would not need if the underlying petition were timely processed, while ineligible and fraudulent applicants receive work authorization and travel documents because of processing delays.”

Source: 2006 USCIS Ombudsman Report

And now from the 2016 Ombudsman Report: “The Ombudsman urges USCIS to immediately address the problems preventing the agency from meeting the processing time goals promised in its 2007 final fee rule, goals it recently recommitted to meeting in the future.232 The significant increases in filing fees under the 2007 rule were justified, in some part, by promises to reduce processing times, presumably through the use of additional resources funded by the increased filing fees. Those promises have not always been met, primarily as a result of the significant resources USCIS has had to divert to the adjudication of humanitarian applications.”

Source: 2016 USCIS Ombudsman Report

Some Insights from the Economics

Consider the economic incentives underlying this. (If you think only private enterprise has economic incentives… please imagine for a moment that it might be broader than that…)

Our government treats immigration processing as a half-business:

  • Applicants are “customers” who pay fees for service
  • Applicants can pay $1000 or more extra to get guaranteed very-speedy (supposed to be 15 day) processing.
  • The hoped-for result: the extra money that comes in will cover the cost of improving the efficiency of the whole operation.
  • (This was a major part of the 2007 solution referred to in the 2016 report!)


  • The department makes decisions that optimize income rather than service (Ombudsman 2006: “USCIS often makes decisions that compromise operational efficiency to ensure revenue flow…”)
  • They earn MORE by providing slow service to most, which pushes people to pay extra.
  • Efficiency got worse, service got worse. Many people pay more but the backlog is getting worse not better after a decade.

Why didn’t it work?

  • It’s a monopoly, with vendor-defined pricing
  • “Customers” have no alternative
  • Nobody ever gets fired over this. (In fact, just the opposite. Overall, US gov’t employees get paid significantly more than equivalent private sector jobs.**)
  • So the incentives are all wrong. NO motivation to improve anything.

This has become a common outcome in our government

  • If they can’t solve the problem, they define the problem away. “We don’t have a backlog — those cases don’t count.”
  • Promises are made, money collected, and nothing actually changes.
  • There are no consequences so no incentives. Gov’t “business” never “fails.” Nobody gets fired. Departments don’t get shut down. There’s no such thing as internal federal “bankruptcy” (unprofitable) or “receivership” (fraud) to close completely incompetent operations.

Final Questions To Consider

Do we need different policies, or a different way to get the job done?

Why do we trust a monopoly government to do a better job than competitive private enterprises?

Could a reasonably competent business executive make a difference, if given an opportunity to clean up our federal mess?


**Source for US Pay Info: this can be a whole separate post. There are a number of studies. Federal Employee Unions have studies showing they are underpaid. Every other study shows the opposite:

Pay Gap Studies (2015)