If you listened to Donald Trump’s speech last night, you might have missed his proposal to end our current Family-Based immigration system. Trump said that he would be “switching away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration, and instead adopting a merit-based system.” What does that have to do with Family-Based immigration, you might ask. You can be forgiven for thinking that Trump is talking about ending the system that brings in low-skilled immigrant workers, instead prioritizing those with high skills. Except, of course, that we have no such system. Our Employment-Based immigration system, which allows 140,000 people each year to immigrate, is geared towards people with more education and higher skill levels than most Americans. Think doctors, scientists, and engineers. 90% of these visas go to people with a professional degree, a Masters, or a Doctorate. Trump is obviously not talking about immigrants coming in through Employment-Based visas as his target.
A majority of immigrants come in through the Family-Based immigration system. These include the spouses and children of citizens and permanent residents, as well as the parents and brothers and sisters of citizens. Trump and his supporters have long targeted the Family-Based system for extinction, hoping to replace it with what Trump calls a “merit-based system.” Family members of United States citizens already wait a long time to come to the U.S.; it takes more than 13 years for the brother or sister of a citizen to be issued a visa. Under a merit-based system, it might take forever since these visa categories would be abolished.
Trump said in his speech to Congress that in “reforming” immigration he would have the “following goals: to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security, and to restore respect for our laws.” Notice that none of those goals includes keeping the families of United States citizens together.
Central to our immigration policy is the idea that if a citizen marries someone from another country, she can bring him here to the United States. Family Unity is a fundamental principle of immigration law. Under current law, we require the citizen to agree to support the new immigrant and we disqualify the immigrant from most public benefits for the first ten years that they live in the United States. We do not require that citizens only marry high-skilled immigrant workers.
Trump’s cryptically worded message on immigration is likely the beginning of his assault on Family immigration.