US Immigration Policy

Lars Poulsen - 2023-01-31

Immigration to the USA

This page is my take on US immigration policy.

General practices here and around the world

Around the world, many people move from where they were born to other places where they would prefer to live and work. Sometimes that means they move from one country to another, especially if the country of origin is small. (If the country of origin is the USA, they are more likely to just move between states, for example from Alabama to California.)

Why do people want to move?

The reasons people move are as varied as their conditions in life.

If they come from a poor country, they may find that they have to move elsewhere to find jobs that allow they to feed and house themselves and their families. If their country of origin is failing due to war, widespread corruption or crime, getting away may be a matter of survival.

If they want to work in specialized fields, their country of origin may have limited opportunities, and moving to a larger country may offer more opportunities for high paying jobs or further professional development. In the case of young people, this includes opportunities for higher education.

How easy is it to move?

Different countries have different laws, but the actual practices have broad similarities.

If you are rich, you will be welcomed. In the US, you can buy your way in, if you can invest a million dollars in a business in a "disadvantaged area" (from your savings, i.e. without borrowing) and get a green card. In Switzerland, a similar program is available. Most countries have not codified such a program, but if you are in this class of immigrant, they will find a way to creatively interpret the rules to let you in.

If you are upper middle class, and especially if your are from a country of similar wealth as the one you are moving to, things get a little more complicated, but you will almost certainly find a way. It is notable, that at this level, migration tends to be somewhat symmetrical: Some German auto designers and engineers want to work in Detroit, some American auto designers want to work in Munich, Berlin or Wolfsburg. This category also includes business executives, college professors, doctors and Olympic class athletes.

If you have education and qualifications to work in an area where the receiving country has a shortage of workers, most countries have rules that allow you to come in as long as you can find a willing employer. These visas are temporary, but usually there is a way to convert them to a permanent residence after a few years.

If you are poor - it is much harder, and your chances depend on where you are from and how desperately you want to move. There are two categories and they are treated very differently:

The inherent dilemmas in Immigration policies

Formulating immigration policy inevitably pits several liberal ("freedom") impulses against each other: These opposing principles make it impossible to easily derive policy from idealistic principles. It will always be a set of trade-offs against undesirable side effects from whatever compromises have been enacted.

How is it broken now - and why?

From this point on, I will be specifically addressing the issues around immigration to the USA.

The worst problem that we have at this time, is that we have a population of around 12 million undocumented, "illegal" immigrants living clandestinely among about 300 million citizens and legal holders of immigrant visas. This severely undermines people's respect for the law. Most of these are nice and hard working people that should have been admitted lawfully, and because they have friends that want to protect them from deportation, we cannot simply get rid of them.

The second problem is that these undocumented immigrants are needed by the labor market, the business community wants them here, and are willing to hire them despite their lack of legal papers.

The third problem is that the criteria for who can legally immigrate are unworkable. One of the rules sets a limit on the number of people that can immigrate from each country in the world. As I remember it, that limit is 20,000 persons per country per year. That really does not limit the number of people coming in from a small country like Denmark, but it is like a needle's eye for people wanting to come in from China, Mexico, Afghanistan, Syria or Honduras. If a working class person from Mexico wants to come in to join family members that are already here, there is a 10 or 20 year waiting list. So in practice, there is no legal path for them to come in.

How can we "fix" or improve the system?

Examples of different groups of migrants

Imagine a person from Afghanistan who shows up at a border crossing in El Paso Texas and applies for asylum because he has fears that the Taliban government want to put him in prison (or worse) because he at one point worked as a translator for an American army platoon. If he can prove that he is being specifically persecuted in his homeland because of his religion, ethnicity or political history, he is entitled to be admitted to the USA for resettlement as a refugee. If he is not, he needs to go to US consulate in his home country to apply to be put on the waiting list to become an immigrant. Common sense would say that if he can prove his identity and employment with the US military, it is clear that he, his spouse and his children qualify. There is a special allocation for people that were left behind, when the US military pulled out of Afghanistan in 2021, but there is a lot of paperwork to be checked, so they will be given a court date far in the future. And they will be asked to prove their identity ... which can be had to do if they have lost their passports, and the government that issued the passports does not want to help them.

Imagine a woman with a teenage son from Guatemala coming to the same border crossing, applying for asylum. She is fleeing, because the drug gangs have threatened to kill her son if he does not agree to be a drug courier. She is unlikely to qualify for for asylum, because she is not persecuted by the government in her home country. She is supposed to be sent back to her home country. But since she has applied for asylum, she must first be given a hearing to determine her eligibility. Due to the under-staffing, the court date assigned may be two years in the future. The rules assume that she will be held in detention until her hearing, but the agency does not have facilities to hold that many people incarcerated, so she will be told a place and time for her court hearing, and then released into the USA until the court date. But she and her son will not be given a work permit, so this only works if she has family members already legally in the US, who can support her, or if a private charity is willing to support her with food and housing during the waiting period.

Now imagine a farm-worker family from Southern Mexico who cannot find work there, because a prolonged drought has laid waste to the farmland where they used to live. Even if they could find work on a farm elsewhere in Mexico, it will be a challenge to find a new home and find work, because the people that already live there have the advantage. So the stories from others that are working in the USA will make them want to come here instead. They cannot come here as legal immigrants, because the waiting lists hare already full, with enough people on them to use the quotas for a decade into the future. So they will pay a smuggler to take them over the border and look for work as undocumented workers. Or they may apply for asylum and figure that with an asylum application pending, they won't be deported until they reach the court date, and then they can slide into the underground economy.

Specific suggestions for improvements

The first thing that is urgently needed is to increase funding for the agencies that are supposed to process visitors, immigrants and asylum seekers. It makes no sense to discuss how to change the rules, if we have been unable to enforce the existing rules for decades. (Just like with the tax agency [IRS - Internal Revenue Service] which is similarly underfunded and understaffed in order to ensure that it cannot audit the tax returns of wealthy tax cheaters.)

Each of the above categories is an unmanageable problem. If we could get a preliminary hearing within two weeks, and keep the applicants in detention until the hearing, we could deport them as soon as the hearing has deemed them inadmissible.

Second fix needed: Adjust quota numbers to be proportional to the population of each of countries from which people may want to come here, and try hard to make sure that there is a path for legal immigration from each country.

Third fix needed: Simplify the rules, so they can be easily explained, end more easily enforced.

Fourth fix needed: Establish a national ID card system, where one of the data fields indicated the person's nationality, and another the person's eligibility for legal employment, with heavy fines on anyone who employs someone who is not allowed to work here.

Invitation to dialogue

The above suggestions are ideas that seem obvious to me, and should not be very controversial to thoughtful people that really do want to improve our country, and how it is viewed in the world. Of course, any actual implementation will have to consider lots of unusual situations and borderline cases that will come up as soon as you start drafting actual rules. I invite comments including constructive criticism with specific suggestions for improvements.

Send your comments to with subject "Immigration".

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