Chapter 7: Building a Congressional Constituency for Immigration through “Earmarks”

  • The Congressional Green Card Nomination Program
  • Direct Benefits
  • Indirect Benefits
  • Conclusion
  • Endnotes
  • Related Content

For many years, U.S. presidents have had significant discretion to make immigration policy, liberalizing or restricting rules on entry and setting deportation priorities. Congress has enacted little legislation of its own because it lacks the overwhelming national consensus required to pass reforms on the issue. But giving individual members of Congress more authority to select
immigrants for permanent residence could overcome this stalemate.


The Congressional Green Card Nomination Program

In addition to the existing legal immigration system, every member of Congress should receive 100 green cards to distribute each year. Members would have complete discretion over which 100 individuals they would grant legal permanent resident status to. Senators or representatives could design whatever selection criteria they prefer and implement it immediately without needing a majority of the House, 60 votes in the Senate, and the president to agree.

According to the Supreme Court, Congress can establish whatever admission criteria that it wants, and this scheme would not violate the separation of powers because executive agencies would still effectuate each nomination.91 The executive branch would still conduct screenings to exclude immigrants who are inadmissible under other criteria, such as national security or criminal concerns, and issue documents. But senators or representatives would sponsor them, rather than employers or family members, who currently select most immigrants.

Congress has 541 members—100 senators, 435 voting representatives in the House, and 6 nonvoting representatives. The combined effect of the program would be to increase legal immigration by just 54,100 annually— about 5 percent of the total number of green cards issued in 2018. Any members of Congress who fail to use their allotments in a given year would have their unused green cards distributed among the rest of their states’ congressional delegations. Notwithstanding its size, this program would have an outsized effect on the immigration debate and be much more likely to grow than other immigration program.

Direct Benefits

Congress is much more likely to adopt this program than general immigration reform because it would grant members direct control over a portion of the system. Once the program is implemented, members would have strong political incentives to issue the green cards, knowing that they would otherwise have their slots redistributed to the rest of their congressional delegations.

This program would be a virtuous “earmark”—a rarity in Washington. Each member’s program would flood with far more applicants than a meager 100 green cards could annually fulfill. As with congressional spending, each member of Congress would lobby to expand the pro‐ gram to 200 green cards, 400, and then 1,000.

Members would want to highlight humanitarian cases and particularly successful immigrants and take credit for saving them or putting them in a position to succeed. The Congressional Green Card Nomination Program would be similar to how members already submit nominations for individuals seeking to attend the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. Each congressional office reviews applicants in each district to determine the candidates that they want to see.92 Almost every congressional office publicizes their choices and takes credit for allowing the person’s application to proceed.

Of course, with direct ties to their offices, the nominators would also care more deeply about the success of each of their nominees, and this would speed up the drive to have green card holders become citizens and voters. “I know those people. They are my people,” the members will say. “They should be citizens and voters.”

Indirect Benefits

Even if the Congressional Green Card Nomination Program were to remain small, it would have massively positive political spillover effects on the immigration debate generally. Members of Congress who thought immigration was a border‐​state question would learn how close to home this issue is. Members of Congress across the 50 states would meet thousands of hardworking immigrants living in the United States or hoping to. And they and their staffs would hear the case for what each person could add to America.

This process would inevitably result in members adopting more nuanced positions about immigrants generally. They would see real, live humans, not talking points. It would teach members of Congress about the depth and intensity of feeling on this issue. Everyone touts the successes of immigrants from generations ago, but at present, too many people have little or no firsthand knowledge of America’s modern immigrants. With this process, members of Congress would make 100 immigrant friends a year and become more comfortable with immigration in general.

The massive demand for green cards under this pro‐ gram would also highlight the shortcomings to the current system. Members would see firsthand how few green cards the country awards (relative to its size and the level of demand). They would witness the almost insurmountable obstacles that most immigrants face and the near impossibility for current illegal immigrants to legalize. It could only make Congress more likely to adopt additional reforms to fix the existing immigration programs.

Members of Congress would also be forced—by public demand, not law—to explain why and how they chose to award green cards. Public scrutiny would decrease the potential for graft and would also begin millions of discussions about immigration in general. Members of Congress would likely choose new “Americans” that they believe would reflect well on their judgment. America would see hundreds of immigrants highlighted in local newspapers for their best qualities. Immigrants would be humanized and introduced one at a time, not as thousands scaling the “wall.”

Conclusion

America’s Founders understood that institutions provide the key to good policy outcomes by creating a governmental structure that channels the power of self interest in ways to limit venality and to use it for more positive purposes. Unfortunately, the current immigration system is not working. Congress can blame the problems on the president, who can make almost unfettered changes to the system.93 A better approach would use the competitive nature of Congress and its members’ desires for votes and financial support to push the debate forward.

Grover Norquist

Grover Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform.

Notes