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Can You Put a Price on Family(-Based Immigration)?

The issue of immigration reform may have been swept from the headlines in the past couple weeks, but it hasn’t left the minds of many immigrants.

Local immigration attorneys say they’ve been getting worried calls from clients ever since the President proposed eliminating some categories of family-based visas.

“Most immigration attorneys would tell you that they are seeing a trend of people worried,” said immigration lawyer Melissa Gawelek, “especially people who are living thousands of miles away from their loved ones.”

During his State of the Union speech, Trump called for an end to a decades-old federal law that allows U.S. citizens to sponsor their relatives and siblings for a green card—a system that Trump and many Republicans have referred to as “chain migration,” while many Democrats are calling it “family reunification.”

In addition to curbing family-based immigration, Trump advocated shifting visa criteria towards a points-based “merit-based” system that would, among other factors, favor foreign nationals with advanced degrees and English proficiency.

Trump says the changes would be good for the most vulnerable American workers and boost the economy—but how exactly does family-based immigration impact the economy?

The Benefits and Costs of Family-Based Immigration

Arturo Luna, 42, has lived in Greater Cleveland for almost half his life, but he grew up in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Ask him how he ended up here, he’ll tell you, “It’s a long story. A love story.”

The number of legal immigrants to the U.S. in recent years has hovered around 1,000,000. About two-thirds of immigrants each year come through family-based visas; most of those go to the spouses, minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens (referred by immigration officials as "Immediate Relatives"), while the rest go to "Family Preference Immigrants," which include the siblings of U.S. citizens, and in some cases the children and spouses of current green card holders. Family visas cannot be used to sponsor aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces or nephews. [Congressional Research Service, 2018]

Luna met his wife while she was vacationing in Puerto Vallarta. And in 1999, he moved to Cleveland to be with her. A few years later, they had a son. At the time, Luna said, it was a struggle to make ends meet. He was working as a busboy at a local Cheesecake Factory.

“Working hard at night, and the next day I had to take care of my son,” he said. “I go shopping, and whatever I make one day before, I spend the whole thing diapers, formula, food for the kid. I was like, ‘Oh my god.’”

But soon, he and his wife would get some help. Luna sponsored his mom for a green card. She moved in with them, and Luna said that changed everything. With his mom taking care of his son during the day, he and his wife could both work. And in 2012, with the money he saved, he bought a 1988 GMC van and an industrial steam cleaner.

Today, Luna runs his own business, Avenger Carpet Cleaning (the name came from his son, who’d just seen the Marvel flick). He also has three native-born employees.

Many immigration researchers say stories like Luna’s illustrate how family-immigration benefits, not just immigrants and their families, but the larger economy.

“Immigrants sponsor their parents for immigration sometimes to help them with their child care,” said Julia Gelatt, a Senior Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington D.C., “and that can help the immigrants stay attached to the labor market or perhaps work more hours or be more committed to their careers.”

Of the immigrants who came to the U.S. through family sponsorship in 2016, about a third were either parents or siblings, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Eliminating those categories would likely result in a slight short-run increase in per capita GDP, according to an analysis by the Wharton Budget Model (the analysis focuses on a Senate bill, the RAISE Act, upon which Trump’s immigration proposal is based). However, the policy would also result in 1.3 million fewer jobs over the next decade and a long-run decrease per capita GDP. 

Arturo Luna, 42, runs a business, Avenger Carpet Cleaning, and has three American-born employees, though he prefers to call them "friends of the family." [Adrian Ma / ideastream]

It’s estimated that Trump’s proposal would also reduce the total number of legal immigrants coming to the U.S. from about a million a year to half that level.

That might not be such a bad thing, said Steven Camarota, Director of Research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-area think tank that favors reduced immigration. Immigration policy, he said, produces winners and losers.

“The parents coming in would be helpful to the individual immigrant,” Camarota said, “but Grandma and Grandpa probably aren't paying enough in taxes to cover their consumption of public services, like most older retired people who don't work much.”

The other cost of family immigration, Camarota said, is that because family visas don't discriminate based on a person’s level of education or training, family visa holders may be more likely to be ‘low-skilled,’ and thus compete with some low-skilled native-born workers for the same jobs.

Researchers tend to agree that immigration in general may have a slightly negative effect on the wages of the least educated native-born workers.

The extent to which people who come to the U.S. on family visas compete with low-skilled workers or use taxpayer-funded services is unclear, however. That’s because, according Gelatt, there isn’t much government data that focuses specifically on that population.

For that reason, many assertions about the effects of family immigration tend to be based on assumptions about the skills and education held by family-sponsored immigrants.

“Do I think the poor labor market for situation for these folks is a serious and profound social problem? You bet,” Camarota said. “Do I think immigration is contributing to that problem? I do.”

But others say a policy that reduces legal immigration that reduces legal immigration would probably hurt Americans more than it would help.

“If we want our economy to be dynamic, we need immigrants,” said Jim Russell, a research consultant with the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University.

Su He moved to Cleveland from China about a decade ago to attend law school. If she and her husband cannot sponsor their parents to move here, they would have no choice but to return to China, she said. [Adrian Ma/ideastream]

Cities like Cleveland are struggling to attract residents, he said. At the same time, immigrants are helping to fill gaps in the region’s labor market, not just in low-skill jobs in the service and agriculture sectors, but also in high-skill professions like engineering and medicine. If those folks can’t someday bring their parents or siblings, Russell said, they may be deterred from moving here.

“The signal you're sending to the rest of the world is one that will reach highly skilled people as well,” he said. “And they will see the United States as intolerant and instead of going to Cleveland they'll go to Toronto, or they'll go to Sydney.”

Or professionals, like attorney Su He, may decide to leave.

He moved here from China about a decade ago to attend law school at Case Western Reserve University. Along the way, she met her husband, a scientist. And last year she hung up a shingle, her own immigration law practice. She said, she and her husband have plans to put down roots in Cleveland, become citizens, and one day, sponsor their aging parents to come live here.

“When I get older, my parents get older,” she said, “and because me and my husband, we’re both the only child in the family, if we don’t care of them, no one will take care of them.”

But those plans could change if President Trump were to get his way. He said if she and her husband can’t bring their parents here, they’d have no choice but to move back to China.  

Copyright 2021 90.3 WCPN ideastream. To see more, visit 90.3 WCPN ideastream.