The Sordid Color Bar That Keeps Out Non-White Immigrants

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New American citizens being sworn in at a naturalization ceremony at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on August 25. Gary Cameron/reuters

This article first appeared on the Cato Institute site.

Immigrants from India waiting to receive residency in the United States may die before they receive their green cards.

The line is disproportionately long for Indians because the law discriminates against immigrants from populous countries, skewing the immigration flow to the benefit of immigrants from countries with fewer people.

This policy—a compromise that resolved a long-dead immigration dispute—is senseless and economically damaging.

In the 1920s, Congress imposed the first-ever quota on immigration, but rather than just a worldwide limit, it also distributed the numbers between countries in order to give preference to immigrants from "white" countries.

In 1965, Congress repealed this system with one that allowed immigrants from any country to receive up to seven percent of the green cards issued each year. This was an improvement, but is an anachronism today and it is causing its own pointless discrimination.

The per-country limits treat each nation equally, but not each immigrant equally. China receives the same treatment as Estonia, but immigrants from Estonia who apply today could receive their visas this year, while immigrants from China who apply today could have to wait a generation.

It is equality in theory and inequality in practice. It is arbitrary and unfair.

Immigrants should be treated as individuals, not as national representatives. As I have written before, no one actually knows for sure the waits for legal immigrants, but Stuart Anderson of the National Foundation for American Policy has conservatively estimated decades-long waits for certain immigrants from China, India, Mexico and the Philippines.

The entire system is an absurd relic of a bygone era. It was a compromise that enabled Congress to overcome its prior racial bias, but the explanation made sense in 1965, not today. Nation-based quotas are governmental discrimination that is every bit as useless—if not as malicious—as racial discrimination.

The per-country limits make employers think twice about hiring the best person for the job due to the disparate waits. This means lost productivity for the United States and a less competitive economy. It can separate families for such a long period of time that would-be legal immigrants attempt illegal entry rather than wait decades for a legal visa.

Shockingly, some opponents of legal immigration would keep this system. Jessica Vaughn of the Center for Immigration Studies told Congress in 2012 not to fix the law on the hope that "maybe the green card delays will dampen some of the enthusiasm for overused guestworker [sic] categories," which immigrants often use to initially come here before applying for a green card.

In other words, she would keep the system so broken that skilled people don't even want to bother trying to come to the United States and let other countries benefit from their talents.

In 2011, Congress overwhelmingly passed (389-15) a bill, the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, that doubled the limits to 15 percent for family-sponsored immigrants and eliminated the limits entirely for employer-sponsored immigrants.

While it failed to receive a vote in the Senate amid wrangling on unrelated issues, there is little doubt its current version (H.R. 213) with nearly 100 cosponsors—half of whom are Democrats—would pass if it came up for a vote today.

Congress is currently considering a bill to reform one high-skilled visa category, the EB-5 investor visa, which has a high likelihood of becoming law in some form. Proponents of ending the per-country limits have an opportunity to attach their fix to this bill. If they do, and Congress passes it, it would put to rest nearly a century of discriminatory immigration policy.

David Bier is an immigration policy analyst at the Niskanen Center. He is an expert on visa reform, border security and interior enforcement. From 2013 to 2015, he drafted immigration legislation as senior policy adviser for Congressman Raúl Labrador, a member of the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security. Previously, Bier was an immigration policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

The Sordid Color Bar That Keeps Out Non-White Immigrants | Opinion