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A Pandemic-Inspired Roadmap to Reduced Immigration

We can draw more from our own labor ranks, stabilize communities, and resist the student visa juggernaut.

The U.S Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico is the busiest immigrant visa post in the world.
A Mexican has her photograph taken, October 27, 2000, as she applies for her non-immigrant laser visa from the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)

The current worldwide visa backlogs caused by the Covid-19 pandemic ironically offer a positive vision of how conservatives can win the legal immigration debate through a strategy of squeezing down quota numbers. The pandemic has shown that immigrant visa numbers can drastically come down with no harm to the national interest. The formula for success is not an overly simplistic debate “for” or “against” legal immigration; the real questions, as they have always been, are “how many?” and “from where?”

The Trump administration’s executive orders to reduce immigration numbers were partly successful, despite the roar of elite protests. But Trump’s cuts were minor compared to the unprecedented immigration reductions the worldwide pandemic has wrought, freezing visa processing around the planet for almost two years. Now the Biden White House, anticipating Covid’s end, has issued E.O. 14012, seeking to ramp up all visa processing, even as the administration’s open-border advocates lawlessly roll out the welcome mat on our Southern border to millions of illegal crossers.

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The Center for Immigration Studies recently reported that the foreign-born population in the U.S. reached 47 million this year, a record high. In response, policymakers seeking to lower legal immigration numbers should leverage the example of the pandemic and its unprecedented reductions to challenge the idea that a constant high level of immigration serves the national interest.

Currently, the State Department has files on some 400,000 immigrant visa applicants who are still awaiting an interview abroad in a U.S. embassy or consulate, all delayed by the pandemic closings. This so-called “chaos,” however, has provided the U.S. a much-needed slowdown in its high and sustained immigration levels, since stretching out the processing time of each application in effect reduces legal immigration. The situation is similar with non-immigrant visas, with U.S. embassies and consulates so overwhelmed by this backlog that some would-be applicants are simply deciding to stay home.

Many of these are work visas for foreign laborers who undercut wages in our employment markets. These skilled workers, typically entering the U.S. on an H-1B non-immigrant visa, often successfully extend their stay in the U.S. for years, mocking the “temporary” status of these laborers. Currently, interview appointment wait times in India, a major source of tech workers who seek H-1B visas, are longer than a year. The U.S. tech sector is not pleased.

Companies will always complain about labor scarcity and costs, but a reduction in the availability of cheap and docile foreign workers simply means that employers must invest more in the neglected American labor market. U.S. higher education, whose far-left leadership is leading a guerrilla culture war against American values, will also grouse about reduced numbers of full-tuition-paying foreign students. Accommodating these special interests, however, is not and should never be a concern for Main Street conservatives.

Globalists are naturally beating the drums for Washington to act. The New York Times quickly jumped on the visa backlog story, bringing out the violins to cry about the inevitable emotional costs of immigrant families “forced” to endure separation, as if airplanes only fly into the U.S. and not out. The Times predicted gloom and doom about unmet labor needs and flagging university enrollment because of missing foreigners.

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Similarly, the Economist, whose editors have never seen an immigration program they did not fawn over, is blowing its horn about delayed visa opportunities around the world. Britain, Canada, and the European Schengen countries are all experiencing similar visa backlogs. Typically, it is all about dollars, pounds, and euros: “Firms want to employ talent from wherever it hails,” the Economist lectures us, telling locals everywhere that borders should not matter.

As conservatives know, however, the pandemic’s impact on immigration is a glass half full, and growing fuller as the months roll by. The backlog shows U.S. policymakers and, most importantly, the voting public, that the country can in fact easily ramp down its migration and visa machinery to the benefit of American workers, bringing more stability to our communities and a smidgen of respect for our borders. Accepting fewer legal immigrants does not produce chaos.

How are the current U.S. immigrant visa numbers determined? They come from a complicated formula in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which arbitrarily sets a 675,000 quota for all immigration visa categories, mostly for family reunification (the main engine of “chain migration”). That number gets adjusted because American citizens are also allowed to file visa requests for their foreign spouses and immediate family without any limiting quotas.

A new Congressional majority should force a public debate over what the quotas should be. Particularly at issue is the quota for family reunification immigrant visas, arbitrarily set in the INA, which constituted the largest segment of legal migration into the U.S. before Covid. Challenging the INA family reunification quota would represent the storming of the legal immigration lobby’s Bastille and needs to happen. A transparent debate about these numbers and their ramifications for our society must become a major political battleground for Main Street conservatives in Congress, on the order of the fight over the final federal budget reconciliation. Members need to be forced to record their votes on visa quota numbers so their constituents know where they stand.

Globalists will continue to push back. They are clamoring to reprise the Obama administration’s visa policy, designed to serve special interests and downplay border security risks. The Obama White House insisted on ramping up all visa processing, despite the hard lessons learned through 9/11, and pressured the federal bureaucracy to eliminate all backlogs. Obama issued E.O. 13957, which mandates that the State Department interview 80 percent of non-immigrant visas within three weeks.

As I observed as a U.S. diplomat abroad, senior officials in State Department eagerly signed up for the Obama plan, ordering diplomatic posts to cut wait times down in part because Foggy Bottom wanted to pocket the considerable visa processing fees that are charged to applicants. The more applicants, the more revenue. The Consular Affairs Bureau, which implements State’s visa policy, became a major profit center, collecting annually some $3.5 billion in fees (pre-Covid).

Indeed, the whole internal administrative machinery is always geared towards issuing visas, downplaying the value of taking more time to review cases, ensuring that documents and family relationships are authentic, and conducting field investigations where necessary. Fraud in many countries is often out of control. The lone consular officer who adjudicates a visa application is mainly rewarded when he issues the visa and fulfills a certain minimal daily quota of interviews.

Despite the constant drumbeat over the past year from self-interested visa advocates in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the tech sector, and universities, our country is demonstrating that it can manage just fine without millions of new migrants. We can instead draw more from our own labor ranks, stabilize communities, and resist the student visa juggernaut. The current visa backlog crisis is an opportune moment for the American commonweal to firmly reestablish the principle that foreigners have only a privilege and not a right to immigrate into or travel to the U.S.

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