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Immigration reform: How many new immigrants are we talking about?

The new immigration reform bill will double the number of immigrants coming to the US over the next decade, critics say. Others say it's too early, too complex, or too politically risky to tell.

By Staff writer / April 25, 2013

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama stands with members of law enforcement as he speaks about immigration reform last week on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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Washington

These may seem like straightforward questions: How many new permanent residents of the United States will there be every year, if the Senate’s bipartisan legislation on immigration reform becomes law? And how many new workers would the plan inject into the American economy, exactly?

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The problem, at least for the moment, is that even those involved in crafting the immigration reform legislation don’t know the answers.

“Nobody has a number that is based on the bill right now that’s accurate,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice Education Fund, a group that supports the reform effort, in a conference call with reporters. “This bill is extremely sophisticated ... it’ll take a bit more [analysis] to get a specific number about how things will change.”

A Senate Democratic aide involved with the drafting of the bill echoed that assessment, as did a Senate Republican aide outside the process.

It’s a fundamental issue, yet to be resolved, even as Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont looks to move the bill through his committee in as little as two weeks' time.

Supporters and detractors agree that that, should the bill become law, they expect legal immigration to boom over the next 10 years.

Pro-reform analysts say that’s a good thing: The bill is replacing illegal workers with legal ones, these advocates argue, thus allowing American employers legally to meet legitimate business needs and uniting families kept apart by poorly fashioned immigration laws.

“You’re having to play catch-up for 20 years of neglect of this system,” says Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center and a former aide to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts during the 2007 immigration reform effort.

Without creating a functional (and larger) legal immigration system, they say, the lures for illegal immigration will remain.

But the only hard numbers being thrown around are from immigration reform critics like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama and low-immigrant advocacy groups like Numbers USA, who believe the current Senate bill could double the number of foreigners who gain legal residence over the next decade and add scores of low-skilled workers to an economy with persistently high unemployment.

“Wages have not gone up for the working American over the last 15 or 20 years. My Democrat colleagues have hammered that for a long time, not so much lately,” Senator Sessions said at a hearing earlier this week. “So we have high unemployment, particularly among low-skilled workers, and we have these highly capable people ... arguing for more low-skilled workers. And I don't see how that can be justified at a time we have high unemployment.”

Today, the US allows about 1 million foreigners to become legal, permanent residents every year. The majority of those come by way of family connections, with about one-fifth entering for employment reasons and one-tenth coming to the US as refugees or for asylum.

The nation also admits roughly 600,000 more foreigners on temporary work permits, according to an analysis from the Migration Policy Institute of 2012 immigration data.

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