In US immigration bill, skills trump family ties

The proposed Senate legislation could transform the ethnic and social mix of the nation's workforce.

One of the most contentious issues in the immigration bill now being debated in the Senate may boil down to this: family ties versus economic promise.

That's because the proposed legislation contains a point system intended to greatly increase the number of immigrants admitted due to their education, earnings level, or job skills, while limiting those allowed in because they have relatives already in the country.

Such a change could transform the ethnic and social mix of the US workforce, as immigration policy has emphasized family reunion for decades. As for its effect on the economy, the experience of other nations with similar systems offers a lesson: it's hard for the government to predict today what sort of workers private companies will need tomorrow.

"If we need to have a point system in order to break the political deadlock we're dealing with, so be it," says Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. "But the most important thing then would be to build in flexibility."

Passage of comprehensive immigration legislation remains far from assured. Bill supporters had hoped to wrap up debate in the Senate this week, but the queue of senators who want to offer amendments is so long that prospects for when a final vote might occur are now uncertain.

The prospective immigration point system is sure to be one debate subject. Critics on the right complain that as currently constituted the system does not reflect what high-tech employers need. Critics on the left say it disrupts a chain of family unification that reflects core American values.

"I have serious objections to the point system that is in the bill now," said Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California in a broadcast interview on Sunday.

The immigration bill would allow eight years to clear up the current backlog of applications for a permanent resident card, referred to as a green card.

After that, only the minor children and spouses of legal immigrants would be able to apply for family visas. Adult children, siblings, parents, and other relatives would have to apply in the general queue.

Currently about 160,000 green cards are awarded on the basis of employer sponsorship. By contrast, after the current backlog is cleared up, the bill would institute a merit-based system with an allocation of 380,000 visas.

This system would use a 100-point scale. According to a draft of the legislation, merit applicants could be awarded up to 47 points for employment-related criteria, such as occupation, or years of work for a US firm. They could earn up to 28 points for their level of education, 15 points for their knowledge of English and US civics, and ten points for family ties.

Workers in jobs judged fast-growing by the Bureau of Labor Statistics would be particularly favored. But as critics point out, not all those jobs require high levels of education.

"What they are looking for are doctors and engineers, but the way this is drawn up they might be getting drywall hangers and landscape workers," says Robert Rector, a domestic policy research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

The current kinship-based system is an economic drag on the US, says Mr. Rector, as it attracts low-skill workers who consume more public services than they pay back in taxes.

Thus Rector believes it is important to change the underpinnings of the immigration system. But he is critical of the way the current proposal is drawn up – particularly its eight-year lag time before full implementation.

"I've been in Washington a quarter century, and I think anybody who takes that bargain is a fool," he says. "The change [to a merit-based system] would never occur."

Immigration point systems have been in use in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand for years. The United Kingdom adopted a similar approach in 2001, and other European nations are considering it.

"More and more countries are deciding that admitting immigrants selected for the education and qualifications the receiving economies need . . . is a good economic and labor market policy," concludes a report on the subject by Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute.

Under the current US proposal, immigrants from many Asian countries would likely fare well, according to the report. For instance, over half of recent immigrants from China, the Philippines, and India have a bachelor's or higher degree.

Immigrants from Latin American countries would likely face "more difficulties," in a point system, according to the study. Fifty-five percent of recent immigrants from Central America and the Caribbean do not even have a high school degree.

One thing that Canada and other nations with points systems have discovered is that their points systems need to be tuned to the needs of their actual economies, points out Ms. Meissner, who is now a Migration Policy Institute senior fellow.

Too often they find that they attract highly education people who end up taking employment that does not use their skills, such as driving a taxi.

"Other countries that have used point systems have modified them over time to be more closely connected to actual jobs," says Meissner.

That does not mean, however, that certain general categories are not highly sought after.

In the United Kingdom, for instance, any prospective immigrant who is a graduate from one of the 50 top-rated business schools in the world is automatically allocated all the points necessary for entry into the country.

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