On one side of my family we were immigrants to the US; on the other side, we were immigrants to Puerto Rico from Europe and the Middle East and not so legal – my great-grandfather jumped ship when deployed by Spain to Puerto Rico in the 1800s. Odd to think that my Italian father was the son of immigrants, but my Puerto Rican mother was born a US citizen to US citizen parents who had been born Spaniards. Everybody who didn’t object was granted automatic US citizenship after the US took Puerto Rico from Spain.

Now that I have set forth my immigrant credentials (no applause, please!), I can say what I think about the irrational and harmful mish-mash of immigration laws that we are burdened with: they are a weapon aimed at the heart and the brain of America. Our laws not only do not recognize a special place for the American culture and values that have emerged after a couple of centuries of e pluribus unum, but they undermine both. The rapid and essentially unregulated influx of people from very different cultures and political systems is overwhelming us, and at a time when we are deeply divided as a nation. Our changing demographics could lead to separatist movements along our border and ethnic and racial strife in our cities.
I’ve been worrying about immigration folly ever since my first posting in the diplomatic service at a “visa mill” in the Caribbean. The island’s tattered economy and its socialist government’s dictatorial over-reach led to a hemorrhage of people into the UK and the US. Every morning a line of hopeful applicants wound around the Consular Section building. There were seven junior officers interviewing from 8:30 am to 4 pm five days a week, and on most days we could each see up to a hundred applicants a day. Ten to twenty percent of applicants got a visa.

Most of the applicants were easy rejects, having nothing whatsoever in their home country to keep them there. It’s not hard to turn down an applicant who has never worked, but wants to fly to the US for a vacation. Other applicants were a toss-up, people with a steady job and a house and a family. But you’d be surprised how many of those never came back, either. Every month we would get copies of INS documents reporting that the person named had entered on a visitor visa and was seeking adjustment of status to stay in the US. There was always a pile of the blue slips, as we called them, a testament to the difficulty of spotting a good liar. And the blue slips represented only those who had some basis for adjusting their status, generally a relative. It didn’t tell us how many hadn’t come back to their home country and hadn’t applied to adjust status, either.

I also did a stint in immigrant visas, and that is where I could really see how foolish our laws were. Almost all applicants were relatives of US citizens or permanent residents. Some of the adults we saw were working and had an education, but most were from that global army of the uneducated, unemployed, unskilled and unmotivated. Most of the people I interviewed for permanent visas got them, having met our laws’ limited requirements that don’t include the ability to speak English. Intending immigrants had to have at least a rudimentary ability to read (in their own language, not ours) and quite a few applicants lacked that skill. I tried to deflect people who came through my office when they didn’t meet the qualifications, but as one of my bosses said, it was like trying to hold back the tide. At least I insisted that they learn to read before they could go, and many of them did. So I suppose some small good came out of it.

Here is how our immigration system works: it consists of set categories of intending immigrants with the priority categories being close relatives of US citizens and permanent residents, including spouses and minor children. US citizens can petition for parents and adult children and adult married children with spouses and families and for brothers and sisters with spouses and families. And then come the housemaids, or employment-based visas. In addition to allowing someone to legally petition for someone not living in the US whose skills are supposedly unique, this is a category that allows someone employing an illegal alien to file a petition for adjustment of the worker’s legal status. In practice, these cases almost always involve maids, housekeepers and nannies. I won’t go into the seedy details, but the law has directly contributed to the proliferation of real human rights abuses that amount to indentured servitude, for years, for many illegal aliens.

When the US was a booming country, still expanding and filling our vast empty spaces, immigration of large numbers of unskilled people made sense. We didn’t need scientists and technicians. We needed strong backs and people to fill the empty spaces. And even today, we need agricultural workers and probably a lot of other kinds of low-level workers. But our immigration system does not answer our country’s needs, but chiefly the interests of the immigrants whom we have already admitted. We no longer have vast habitable spaces to be filled or factories to employ the unskilled. And although I understand the need to allow immigrants to bring their minor children and spouses, and even elderly and dependent parents, I have never agreed with the idea that the US has a humanitarian imperative to reunite siblings after one of them has chosen to emigrate to the US. If your sister moved to Ecuador, would you feel compelled to move there, too? You won’t be surprised to learn that this is a big UN concept, this reunification of families, so you know it is the brainchild of people who come from places nobody wants to move to. Why can’t they reunite in their native land? That seems much fairer to America.

We need immigration reform, but we don’t need more piecemeal measures that leave in place an essentially wrong policy. Instead of trying to bribe various ethnic communities by opening wide our doors to greater immigration from their home countries, we ought to be gutting the current law and replacing it with simple rules and categories that are geared to our current and future needs, including a reassessment of countries we want to favor for immigration and those that should be diminished. If we need workers, let’s have a sensible guest workers program that allows free travel back and forth, but no residency status for family. Let the worker support his family in place back home. That’s fair to everybody. We don’t need the illiterate; we don’t need the unskilled; we don’t need America-haters. Let’s bring common sense to immigration policy.
Let me stress that I don’t expect the USG to take the sensible approach. Our government has an interest in padding the voter rolls with people who think a vote is meant to be sold and our members of Congress by and large respond to public concerns when their re-elections are in jeopardy. If that is the case, we won’t be able to recognize our country in another twenty years. And you’d better study Spanish; or maybe Chinese; and Arabic is a smart bet, too.