US immigration boom stirs call for reform

American immigration practices make no economic sense.

Many economists say that.

"Immigration policy has been captured by special interests who peddle the notion that immigration is an unmitigated benefit to the nation and that it is costless," says Vernon Briggs Jr., an economist at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," he adds.

Professor Briggs was one of 20 or so witnesses at hearings called last month by Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee.

One theme of the Texas Republican's hearings was that the greatest influx of immigrants in United States history, now under way, hurts the nation's less-educated, low-skilled workers.

Those workers compete for jobs with the 40 percent of immigrants who lack a high-school diploma or "discernible skills," notes Representative Smith.

Nor does the inflow provide sufficient educated, technology workers able to meet the needs of American business. Some 90 percent of future jobs, Smith says, will require post-high school education.

The well-to-do may get their gardens cleaned up and meat cut into chops at low cost by immigrant workers. But current immigration policy, Smith says, has "a destructive impact" on American workers, especially earlier immigrants and black and Hispanic citizens.

New bill expected

So Smith plans to introduce a bill soon to alter immigration policy.

At present, 80 percent of the nearly 900,000 legal immigrants per year enter under family reunification provisions - families of legal immigrants - no matter their education level.

Smith wants to "slightly change the mix" away from family chains to immigrants with the education and skills needed "to find good jobs and take care of their families."

He would also prefer to reduce the annual number of immigrants to 550,000, the level suggested in 1995 by the US Commission on Immigration Reform. But no decision has been made to include that in the bill.

Other industrial nations are much tougher in selecting immigrants according to education and skills.

Immigration growth

Here are some findings of research on immigration:

*Since 1970, more than 30 million foreigners and their descendants have been added to US communities and labor pools. That's equivalent to the population of all Central American nations. Present immigration levels will add the same number in a shorter time.

*Two-thirds of US population growth stems from immigration.

*The foreign-born population has grown from 8.6 million in 1965, 4.4 percent of the total, to 27 million now, or 9.7 percent. That doesn't include 6 million illegal immigrants. So 1 in 8 workers is foreign-born.

*About 300,000 legal immigrants enter the US each year with less than a high-school education. One result: US workers without a high-school diploma rose about 21 percent between 1979 and 1995.

*Immigration has contributed to an increase in income inequality since the mid-1970s.

*Less-skilled immigrants use the welfare system and other government safety nets more than do native-born Americans, raising the tax burden. In California, such use costs an extra $1,174 annually in state and local taxes for the average native-born American household.

Nonetheless, Congress is reluctant to reform immigration laws.

Emotional backgrounds

James Edwards Jr., a former congressional aide, calls it partly emotional. Many members think of poor, ill-educated immigrant ancestors. They arrived, though, at a time when that description fit most Americans.

Another reason is political. Many members come from districts with large immigrant communities that know how to use their clout. Further, lawyers specializing in immigration cases and business groups that hire immigrants, lobby against restrictions.

New immigrants hurt the opportunities of earlier immigrants and black and Hispanic citizens.

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