In his most recent book, Brain Gain: Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy, author Darrell M. West argues that “U.S. immigration policy went seriously off course after Congress passed legislation in 1965 making family unification the overarching principle in immigration policy… We need to reconceptualize immigration as a brain gain and competitiveness enhancer for the United States.” While the book may serve as a much-needed conversation starter, West, unfortunately, fails to delve beyond the superficial. We do need to have a serious conversation about balancing family immigration with our economic needs in the context of reforming the nation’s immigration system, but West’s book ends up pitting skilled-based immigration against family-based immigration—a juxtaposition that does little to move the debate forward.

West states:

Family is defined so broadly that eligibility includes not just immediate family members, for whom the benefits of unification are well documented, but the extended clan—aunts, uncles, cousins, adult children.

This statement is patently untrue. U.S. citizens can petition for parents, spouses, children, and siblings, and LPRs can petition for their spouses and children. There is no way for a U.S. citizen or LPR to petition directly for an aunt, uncle, or cousin. While aunts, uncles and children may eventually join family members in the U.S., it is only because the aunt is the sibling of a U.S. citizen, and the cousin is her child. You may have more “distant” family members united in the U.S., but each of those family members is a close family member of someone else. West also seems to believe that one’s children become part of the “extended clan” once they turn 21 years old. It’s unfortunate that West simply propagates misconceptions and doesn’t take advantage of this teachable moment and educate people about how U.S. immigration laws function.

Perhaps more importantly, West’s tales of immigrants who achieved success in the U.S. fail to support his own thesis that we must place more focus the right kind of immigrants. For example, Sergey Brin, the founder of Google, moved to the U.S. with his parents when he was six years old. Perhaps his mathematician parents came on employment-based visas, but he immigrated as their son. Similarly, Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, was born in Paris to Iranian parents and arrived in the U.S. as a young child. Jerry Yang, founder of Yahoo, came to America at age 10 with his family. Dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov defected to the U.S. and was thus an asylee. Actress Salma Hayek came to the U.S. for boarding school when she was 12. Madeleine Albright came to the U.S. as a child with her family. While Albert Einstein did have exceptional abilities and found work in the U.S., he was forced to flee to the U.S. due to Nazi policies. None of these immigrants that West discusses came to the U.S. based on their extraordinary abilities. While some of their parents may have come to the U.S. for employment or because of their skills, Brin, Omidyar, Yang, and Albright were certainly the beneficiaries of family ties—exactly the opposite of what West is trying to argue.

West then argues that “most research on the value of family integration is based on having mothers and fathers directly engaged in the rearing of children…little research supports the social or economic value of extended families on the upbringing of children.” Yet he cites no research at all. There is, in fact, research indicating that family-based immigrants make vital contributions to the U.S. economy as productive workers and entrepreneurs. For example, research conducted by economists Harriet Duleep and Mark Regets, based on Census data and admissions data, confirms that family-based immigrants often lack the initial earning potential of employment-based immigrants, but the incomes of family-based immigrants tend to grow more rapidly than the incomes of employment-based immigrants. In fact, the incomes of the two groups tend to equalize over time. Research has also shown that, because of their unique backgrounds and abilities, family-based immigrants are more likely to adapt to the evolving demands of the labor market and less likely than employment-based immigrants to compete with the native-born for jobs.

According to data from the Small Business Administration, immigrant women in particular “are one of the fastest-growing segments of small business owners in the United States.” Broad family linkages are critical because they provide immigrants with the “social capital” to pool financial resources and to start and manage a wide range of small- and medium-sized businesses that would otherwise not be economically viable. These businesses range from “mom-and-pop” outfits like grocery stores and restaurants to larger enterprises such as community banks, clinics, supermarkets, and food-manufacturing operations.

In sum, there is no need to put skill-based immigration in competition with family-based immigration. As Bill Ong Hing, Professor at the San Francisco University Law School explains, the two systems are “complementary ways of achieving and reflecting our goals and values as a society” since “we use immigration to help our economy, to promote the social welfare of the country, and to promote family values.” As a result, portraying immigration reform as a choice between employment-based and family-based immigration is, in fact, a false choice.

Photo by DorkyMum.