That backlog is the notorious "line" of legal immigrants the one that lawmakers insist cannot be cut by unauthorized immigrants already in the country. The trouble is that some categories of green card petitioners for instance, Filipino brothers and sisters and married sons and daughters of adult U.S. citizens have been waiting in this line for more than 20 years. Some may have lost interest in becoming Americans; others have died.
Consequently, no one can say with certainty how large a surge in legal immigration will be triggered by immigration reform or predict the short-term effects on the job market and unemployment. But whatever its dimensions, the Senate bill does an important thing in reunifying families and clearing an absurdly long backlog.
The bill also aims to avoid the formation of new backlogs. It does so partly by abolishing visa preferences in the future for siblings of U.S. citizens (who now constitute the largest single component of the backlog, with nearly 2.5 million on the green card waiting list) and married children over age 31 of U.S. citizens. That provision, pushed mainly by Republicans who dislike what they call "family chain migration," will harm many foreign-born U.S. citizens who depend on family support networks to help care for children, start businesses and negotiate the language and customs of their adopted country.
But the Senate opted to create more opportunities for highly qualified workers and a merit-based system that assigns points to visa seekers with advanced education, fluency in English and other attributes that are critical to sharpening America's competitive edge in the global economy. Those are sensible steps, but they needn't have come at the expense of family-based visas.
By clearing the backlog of green card petitioners, the Senate bill is likely to drive the proportion of foreign-born residents higher still. In the short term, that may lead to social tensions of the sort that have attended spikes in immigration throughout American history. In the long run, it will contribute to the nation's vibrancy and wealth.