Family Reunification--Just a Passport to Jobs

Los Angeles Times op-ed, July 10, 1995

Norman Matloff

The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform is recommending a reduction in the size and scope of family-reunification quotas in our immigration policy. Ethnic activist groups immediately accused the commission of heartlessly breaking up immigrant families.

Yet those who immigrate under family reunification laws typically are motivated by economic advancement, not family ties. The family connections merely provide them with a mechanism by which U.S. law will allow them to immigrate and achieve their economic goals.

Indeed, the putative "reunification" is more often a separation. Take for example a fictitious but not atypical man who immigrated from Taiwan ostensibly to join his sister, who had immigrated earlier. Yet he left behind in Taiwan his father and two other siblings, none of whom wants to emigrate. The man does not see his sister very often either, as they live in different states. In other words, he actually separated from his family, rather than reuniting with them.

The fact that driving forces are economic, rather than a longing to be with a relative, can be seen statistically, too. Stanford immigration law professor Bill Ong Hing notes that Japanese Americans have sponsored their relatives to immigrate at much lower rates than have Americans of Filipino, Chinese, Korean and East Indian heritage. He cites Japan's strong economy as the factor behind the difference.

One can hardly blame the fictitious man in the example above for wanting to get ahead in life. But one certainly can question why he should be given immigration priority over Taiwanese who are not so lucky as to have siblings in the United States.

The fact is that all three of the central tenets of our national immigration policy--family reunification, attainment of specialized labor skills and provision for political safe haven--are being widely flouted. Consider the claim made by former California gubernatorial candidate (and software entrepreneur) Ron Unz that the nation's computer industry depends on immigrants for its technical edge.

Unz's claim simply does not hold water. The presence of a large number of immigrant engineers in the Silicon Valley is merely a consequence of the computer field's fame in Asia as a vehicle for immigration. These immigrants are, for the most part, not the ones making the technical advances in the industry. This can be seen in rough form in the awards given by the Assn. for Computing Machinery for software and hardware innovation: Of the 56 awards given, only one recipient is an immigrant.

Few of us would refuse safe haven to genuine refugees and political outcasts, but again in many cases the people involved are interested primarily in economic betterment. For instance, in 1992, Congress passed the Chinese Student Protection Act, which in effect gave mass political asylum to all students from China studying in the United States during the 1989 demonstrations in Beijing. This "protection" was unnecessary, as pointed out by Sidney Jones, executive director of Asian Watch/Human Rights Watch; only a small percentage of students needed asylum, and they could have used regular asylum channels, without the act.

This is not to say that no legal immigrants ever are motivated by a longing to be with family members here, or that no employer-sponsored immigration is ever warranted, or that no applicant for political asylum genuinely needs protection. But the fact is that our immigration policy is very often working counter to these noble aims.

Indeed, our current policy is an illogical hodgepodge whose badly needed reform has been stonewalled up to now by special interests. When ethnic activists protest that scaling back the family reunification provision would "disproportionately impact" people of their ethnicity, they are motivated by an awareness that reduced numbers in an ethnic group lead to reductions in political power for the activists. Similarly, high-tech employers have opposed reform largely because immigrants fulfill their desire for workers who cost less and are more compliant than Americans. One General Dynamics subcontractor has even referred to the foreign employees' status as "indentured."

And the Chinese Student Protection Act involved the special interests of its author, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). Pelosi rocketed to stardom within the Democratic Party by criticizing then-President George Bush's refusal to condition renewal of China's most favored nation trading status on improvements in China's human rights record. But Pelosi, knowing that the Chinese students sided with Bush on that issue, coerced the students into keeping silent by offering them all "green cards" via the Chinese Student Protection Act.

The Commission on Immigration Reform, in recommending changes in all three of the tenets underlying current policy, is to be commended for resisting the pressures of such special interests. Maybe Congress will find such integrity contagious.