Expanding the Great American Tapestry: Reforming Our Immigrant Visa System

Michael Milan (right) with his family, who have waited for more than 30 years in the immigration backlog to be reunited. (Photo courtesy of the Value Our Families campaign)

By Jaeho Lee

One of President Biden’s first initiatives in office was to propose the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, a comprehensive immigration bill that would legalize the 11 million undocumented immigrants and modernize and reform our immigrant visa system, clearing the backlogs of visas and elevating U.S. immigration.

For the Milan family, this is 35 years overdue. Michael Milan was born in Los Angeles in 1975 to immigrant parents from the Philippines. His father served in the U.S. Navy and his mother, Richel, was a registered nurse who traveled across the country before settling in California. She worked hard as an ICU nurse for 30 years to provide for her son and give him a good education. As a U.S. citizen, Richel petitioned for her sister, Georgia Garcia Dolar, to come to the U.S. in 1978. But it was not until 1986, after 11 long years, that their family received confirmation that the petition was received and they could proceed with the visa application. They immediately applied for a visa and did not receive further notice until 2019.

In November of 2020, after nearly 35 years of being stuck in the immigration backlog, they were notified that the visa application was rejected due to the COVID-related immigration ban signed by former President Trump. The family, refusing to give up, searched for the initial attorney that helped them file paperwork in 1986, but he had since passed away.

Among the many issues plaguing the country’s outdated and inefficient immigration system is the status awaiting the estimated 3.7 million people like Georgia in the family-based visa application backlog. While 1.2 million people received green cards in 2016, by 2019, this number had slowed to 1 million in 2019 due to Trump Administration policies making our system slower and more restrictive. Current law dictates that no single country can have more than 7% of all visa applications, and if that country reaches the limit, then people from other countries are processed ahead of the people still waiting from that back-logged country. Some of the countries that experience the longest wait times are China, the Philippines, India, and Mexico.

Garcia Dolar is both in a category with the longest wait times, spouses of U.S. citizens, and from the Philippines, a country with the longest wait times. The U.S. Citizenship Act would increase the current 7% cap to 20%, add visas to the annual numerical limits, and create a maximum wait time of 10 years, shrinking the visa backlogs.

An increase in immigration levels would not only help the millions of people stuck in the visa backlog, but it would help revitalize American economic interests. It was the immigration boom that lasted throughout the latter half of the 20th century that helped fuel American economic growth, created vibrant diverse American communities and spurred entrepreneurship. Immigration growth was actively impeded by the Trump administration, and fell due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Former President Trump obstructed and ended family-based immigration, despite his wife’s usage of it to gain her parents’ citizenship status.

Increased immigration would also help solve the growing threat of the loss of America’s population. New data from the 2020 Census indicates an alarming trend: Since 2010, there has been a 34% increase (13.8 million) in the 65 and older population. The national median age has increased from 37 to 38. In fact, in 2019, more than half of the states had median ages greater than 38, and every northeastern state had a greater median age than the national median age. As the Baby Boomer generation ages out of the workforce, more workers are needed to replace them. In 2010, the dependency ratio (measurement between working-age people and those who are classified as dependents, from ages 0–14 and 65 and older) was 49. For every 100 working age individuals, there were 49 who were of dependent ages. But in 2019, this ratio had increased to 53.7.

This increase in the dependency ratio cannot be explained by an increase in the number of 0–14 dependents. In fact, since 2010, there has been an overall decrease in individuals ages 0–14 by 1.1% (657,000). But rather, there has been a general decrease in fertility over the past decade and people are waiting longer to have children, or not having children at all, due to a variety of factors including financial considerations, health implications, and career and life goals.

With a decrease in the natality rate and an increase in the rate of people aging out of the workforce, our country faces a troubling future without increased immigration. There would be a decrease in entrepreneurship, and with fewer taxpayers, the government budget would be strained at all levels. In the long-term, our social support systems for our elderly population (Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare benefits, etc.) which relies on current workers paying taxes to support current retirees’ benefits, would collapse.

With lowering birth rates and decreasing incentives among young adults to have more children, the only other option for increasing the workforce is to invite people. In a recent report, Ali Noorani and Danilo Zak of the National Immigration Forum put forth that increasing legal immigration by little more than a third each year would balance America’s dependency ratio. If America continues to ignore the plethora of problems in our immigration system, we may face a future where we don’t have enough people to run our government or grow our economy.

Our family-based immigration system has not been updated in 30 years, and requires a much-needed update to combat the growing backlog of requests. The Reuniting Families Act would work to start clearing family-based and employment-based backlogs, providing relief to separated families and Indian families stuck in temporary nonimmigrant visa status. Immigrants assimilate better and have greater incentive to remain in the workforce when they have family support. Half of all America’s Fortune 500 companies were founded by first- or second-generation immigrants, and immigrants are twice as likely as native-born Americans to start a business.

The time is now to make changes to our immigration system. Asian Americans Advancing Justice — AAJC is a co-convener of the Value Our Families campaign, which calls for the following changes in U.S. policy:

  • Pass the Build Back Better budget package with a pathway for citizenship for undocumented youth with or without DACA, TPS holders, farmworkers, and essential workers. Citizenship will allow millions to become more permanent members of the U.S. workforce and support America’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Make strides to clear the family-based visa backlogs and unite families by any means possible before the year ends. Congress must include the following provisions in the Build Back Better budget package to ensure families do not wait longer to be together.
  • Recapture/rollover hundreds of thousands of lost and unused visas
  • Stop counting derivatives (children and spouses) towards annual limits
  • Keep our promise to Diversity Visa winners
  • In the long-term, Congress should pass the Reuniting Families Act, which was included in President Biden’s U.S. Citizenship Act, which is Value Our Families’ cornerstone bill that would provide a permanent legislative fix for the family-based and employment-based backlogs.

Our current immigration system needs a massive overhaul, and the clock is ticking.

Jaeho Lee is the Policy & Programs Summer Law Clerk at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

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Working to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to participate in our democracy and fighting for civil and human rights for all.

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