WASHINGTON, May 5 (Reuters) - U.S. immigration authorities
would give preference to better-educated and trained
visa-seekers who can contribute to the American economy under a
less-noticed provision of the immigration bill in the U.S.
The bi-partisan bill in the U.S. Senate would rewrite the
half-century-old standards that control legal immigration to
favor skills over family ties.
The winners of this proposed "merit-based" system, experts
say, would be primarily from Asia, particularly from India,
China and the Philippines, whose citizens are more likely to
have attended college or have on-the-job training in skilled
occupations such as engineering and technology. The losers are
likely to be Mexicans and Central Americans.
The new system, long advocated by economists and politicians
who believe the main purpose of immigration laws should be to
serve economic growth, would replace one geared mainly to
As an example, an engineering graduate from India would have
a better chance of immigrating to the United States than the
grandmother of a naturalized U.S. citizen who does not speak
The best known provisions of the Senate bill would provide a
path to legal status for roughly 11 million undocumented
immigrants currently living in the United States, reinforce U.S.
borders to control the flow of future illegal immigrants, and
establish a new system for temporary "guest workers" to meet the
needs of employers seeking lower-skilled workers.
So far, those are the most controversial elements of the
bill, which is scheduled for consideration next week in the
Senate Judiciary Committee, the first step in a prolonged debate
in the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.
The merit-based approach may provoke a fight as well.
Currently, most foreigners can only get a green card - which
allows them to stay and work in the United States - if an
immediate family member or company sponsors them. Cubans and
refugees are admitted under different programs.
The bill proposed by four Democrats and four Republicans
would make it harder for the siblings and adult children of U.S.
citizens to get permanent residence visas, or green cards. The
legislation would also eliminate "diversity" green cards, which
has helped Africans immigrate to the United States.
But the bill would create another way to get a green card,
where immigrants would be awarded the most points based on their
level of education, employment experience, entrepreneurship in
business, English language proficiency and family ties.
"Our immigration system has been holding us back," said
Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, social policy director with the
centrist Third Way think tank. "It has not been set up to make
U.S. economic growth our priority and this is a huge step in
Foreigners would be awarded 15 points for a doctorate degree
and another 10 points if they had a full-time job in the United
States, according to the bill. They could also score two points
for every year they were lawfully employed in the United States
and another 10 points for speaking and writing English fluently.
Merit-based visas would go first to applicants with the
highest number of points.
"People are going to rack up a lot of points through
education and employment," said Jen Smyers, associate director
for immigration and refugee policy with humanitarian group
Church World Service. "What does that mean for someone who needs
their sibling to be here because they are facing trauma? What
does it mean for a woman in Iran who does not have education
Church World Service, the AFL-CIO union and other groups are
urging senators not to reduce family reunification visas.
If enacted, the bill would align the United States with
countries like Canada and Australia that use a points system to
attract skilled, educated workers.
The Republican administration of George W. Bush seized on
the idea of using immigration as an economic policy tool. But it
failed in 2007 to pass a broad immigration bill that would have
provided a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and would
have shifted the bulk of future immigrants to a points system.
At the time, President Barack Obama, who was then a freshman
Democratic senator, said it did not "reflect how much Americans
value the family ties that bind people to their brothers and
sisters or to their parents."
Obama has so far praised the Senate bill and has not taken a
position on the merit-based system.
The last time the U.S. immigration system was changed
substantially was in 1986. The legislation legalized the
three-to-five million illegal immigrants in the country, the
majority from Mexico. But it failed to create new avenues for
foreigners to come to United States legally.
One concern about the new approach is that the country could
find itself unintentionally leaving gaps in low-skilled jobs.
By 2020, the U.S. economy will need at least three million
additional workers to care for the elderly, do construction
jobs, and prepare food, among other lower-skilled jobs,
according to data from the Department of Labor.
As the U.S. population ages, demand for home health and
personal care aides is expected to increase considerably, the
department said in its occupational outlook.
"The number of authorized migration slots doesn't come close
to meeting the needs of the economy," said Michael Clemens, an
economist and senior fellow with the Center for Global
Development think tank. "Employers will once again be forced to
resort to black-market employment to fuel the economy."
The new system could also favor men over women.
"The point system favors people who have had access to
education and work in the formal labor sector," said an analysis
by the National Immigration Law Center. "Many women - who are
often caregivers and caretakers for family members - and
low-wage workers will have difficulty qualifying for a visa."
It is difficult to gauge at this stage the extent to which
the merit-based system might complicate passage of the bill.
Industry and organized labor have so far focused most of
their attention on guest-worker provisions and increases under
the bill in allocations of so-called non-immigrant H-1B visas
for specialty occupations.
(Reporting by Rachelle Younglai; Editing by Fred Barbash and