Making US immigration fair again

March 17, 2019 (1546 words) :: Everyone knows the system is broken. Wouldn't it be great if we reformed it in such a way as to benefit capital?
Tags: personal, immigration

This post is day 76 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Anyone who’s ever had to interact with the US immigration system knows that it’s broken. Politicians from across the aisle basically all agree on this, even if they differ in their interpretations of how it’s broken. For Republicans, it’s letting the wrong types of people through, or just letting too many people through, period; for Democrats, it’s antiquated and needs to be modernised, preferably alongside the relaxation of quotes for workers of all skill levels, in order for capital to have access to cheap labour. (In this vein, liberals have originated some truly terrible takes purportedly in support of immigration, most of them split between “Steve Jobs’ dad was an immigrant and look what he did for the economy!” and “But who will pick our vegetables?”)

I knew how bad the US immigration system was long before I discovered theoretical critiques that linked immigration policy to capitalism. In my last year of college, before I discarded my plan to move to the Bay Area to work at Google, I had done enough research into the system to be highly wary of my chances.

As a Canadian, I would be able to enter initially on a TN (a visa category created through NAFTA), but that would be temporary, and if I wanted the right to reside in the US permanently, the wisest option would be to apply for an H-1B. But H-1Bs have a fairly strict quota, and that quota has been exceeded in recent years (meaning that applications are chosen via a lottery system, and those that don’t make the cut won’t even get read). I know way too many people my age who were already living in the US and had planned to stay, only to discover that their H-1B application got thrown out right off the bat simply because too many other people applied.

The path to a green card (permanent residency) was even more fraught for someone like me. You see, green cards are capped based on country of birthday - no more than 7% of the green cards issued in a particular year can be granted to applicants born in any country. This cap applies equally to a country like Liechtenstein (population just over 38,000) as it does to India or China (populations over 1.3 billion). If you, like me, had the misfortune to be born in one of the more populous countries, and you’re applying for a green card via the most common employer-sponsored route, well, enjoy your 5+ years of waiting. In the meantime, better hope your visa gets renewed and you don’t get fired.

This is one of many demonstrations of the racist character of the US immigration system. I say “racist” not in the sense of denunciation, but as an almost clinical description of the empirical outcomes of the system. Restricting immigration based on country of birth, in such a way that only China and India (and occasionally others like the Philippines) are affected, is a means of discrimination based on race, even if it’s coached in careful statistic language with the ostensible of promoting diversity.

Most immigration policies at least maintain a thin veneer of fairness - they will provide potential paths to success even if they ignore the structural impediments that prevent most people from achieving them. Theoretically, anyone can find a US employer willing to hire them, or get accepted to an American university, or even marry an American citizen. Of course, those options are limited to a very small number of people, and the playing field for those options isn’t exactly even; still, at least theoretically, anyone on earth could qualify if they really set their mind to it, through hard work and hustle.

But you can’t change your country of birth. I think the existence of a policy like this one sits uncomfortably with the idea of meritocracy, which many who self-describe as liberal seem to think should be a pillar of an immigration system. Conservatives don’t seem to mind this policy so much - if it keeps out the non-whites, so much the better. But liberals want the immigration system to be fairer, erasing the effects of unchangeable attributes like birth; as long as you work hard- ideally through generating surplus value for an American corporation - you should be given a chance in America. It doesn’t matter what your identity is, or where you were born, as long as you’re willing to jump through the requisite hoops to demonstrate your loyalty to the ruling class.

In hindsight, there is a simple reason why I was so offended by the harsh realities of the US immigration system: because I expected things to be easy for me. By the time I had gotten a job offer from Google, I figured I was on the typical Silicon Valley path of upward mobility: a six-figure job with expectations of advancement in an industry whose prestige was only growing. I had succeeded within the system, and so I thought the system would be set up to reward me for it. I did not expect to be stymied, however temporarily, in such a crucial area as getting the right to live somewhere.

Of course, even despite being subject to a long waiting list for my green, my US immigration options were much better than your average would-be immigrant: I had a bachelor’s degree, and a job offer, and naturalised citizenship with a major trading partner. I knew that the system was already stacked in my favour in many ways. But I didn’t compare myself to those who I saw as having failed within the system; at most, I would feel vaguely sorry for them, but the bulk of my indignancy with the US immigration system was the way that it didn’t work for me. Surely I am a worthy immigrant, I wanted to plead to someone, David Frum-style.

The thing about the US having such a harsh immigration system is that it’s the only real hardship that people who’ve ascended to the professional-managerial class will ever experience in their adult lives. Every other encounter with the realities of American late capitalism is deliberately eased: finding housing is easier when you have a stable job and high income; private health insurance shields you from cripping medical debt or being unable to see a doctor; if you don’t have time to cook, you can just pay someone else to bring you food. (You never expect to be the person bringing others food, though.) Because of that, it’s easy to write off the immigration system as an anomaly, standing separate from the rest of the system. You can “reform” and “modernise” it while leaving everything else intact.

Remember that lobbying effort for progressive immigration reform led by Silicon Valley executives/investors/billionaires? At the time, I thought it was so laudable, so generous. Now, though, I see it as nothing more “progressive” than a perfectly rational expression of their class interests. It’s a reasonable investment for them, because having a steady stream of immigrant workers and/or entrepreneurs sacrificing themselves on the altar of technology startups helps sustain the tech bubble, thus buoying up their own net worth.

I still don’t entirely know how I got from “the immigration system is bad” to “the entire socioeconomic system is bad”. As I’ve written before, it was a long, complex and even serendipitous journey whose steps I haven’t yet fully retraced. But I think it had something to do with extending my concerns beyond the confines of my little self: being indignant with the immigration system not just because of its impacts on me personally, but because of how it affects so many other people. Recognising that I’m not the only person who matters, in the grand scheme of things.

And I think once you start feeling indignant about the US immigration system, it’s not a huge leap to discover the socioeconomic realities that both produced this system and interact with it on a continual basis. Why is the US such an attractive destination for would-be migrants, and what does that tell us about its place in the geopolitical world order? What mechanisms does the US use to keep out potential migrants, and are they fair?

At some point I realised that my problems with immigration were not isolated anomalies, but instead symptoms of a much bigger and more complex social ill. Much of the functioning of any unequal system built on nation-states is refracted through the immigration policies of the most powerful state, and the US today is no exception.

So if you’re uncomfortable with the unfairness of the US immigration system and think it needs to be reformed, consider whether it can ever be made truly fair if the underlying system itself generates disparities in terms of access to education, financial stability, and treaty eligibility, often simply due to accidents of birth. The apparent conclusion, then, is that the only fair immigration system is no system at all; the question remains of how to transform the rest of the system such that this reality is possible.

Previous fragment on immigration: But what if we used drones? (day 4). Also, I highly recommend this Salvage piece which explains why we are all migrants under capitalism.

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