Senate plan favors immigrants with skills
The proposal shifts away from the traditional focus on family
By MICHELLE MITTELSTADT
Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
May 11, 2007, 12:37PM
WASHINGTON The importance of blood ties would be sharply reduced under an immigration proposal being negotiated in the Senate, with emphasis instead placed on welcoming foreigners who demonstrate educational, work and English expertise.
Advocates say a skills-based immigration policy would better serve the national interest, but the Catholic Church and many immigrant rights groups are profoundly wary of any effort to tinker with a decades-old legal immigration system focused on reuniting U.S. residents with their loved ones overseas.
More than two-thirds of legal immigration, which brought in 1.1 million people last year, is family-related.
In Houston, one of America's most ethnically diverse cities, people in the Asian-American and Hispanic communities are nervously watching the rapidly evolving Washington debate.
“It will change the whole complexion of immigration, and who gets in and who doesn't,” said Rogene Gee Calvert, director of the mayor's Volunteer Initiatives Program and a national board member of OCA, an organization representing Asian Pacific-Americans.
Wafa Abdin, supervising attorney at Cabrini Center for Immigrant Legal Assistance at Catholic Charities of Houston, expressed concern that many of the low-income immigrants her center serves could be harmed by any shift in the law.
“To me, it's just a drastic change of what we have valued for years,” she said.
“We believe in family unity and we want to continue with that.”
Seeking White House deal
Discussions about moving to a system similar to the Canadian, British and Australian models which award immigration privileges based on factors such as work experience, language, education and income are among the most contentious facing Republican and Democratic senators who are racing to broker an immigration deal with the White House.
Democrats, historically champions of family migration, have moved some ways toward embracing the demand by the White House and Senate Republicans to create a point system to determine which immigrants to accept into the United States,
The negotiators still are haggling over whether to give points for family ties to U.S. residents.
“Where we have accepted going to a points system, that is huge movement,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who is among the dozen negotiators.
“But how you ascribe the points becomes incredibly important. Is there no points or very little points for family?”
The secret plan under discussion “virtually does away with family reunification provisions,” Menendez said.
But another deal broker, Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said the proposal “doesn't end family migration. It only curtails it in favor of more migration on merit and a point system.”
It remained unclear Thursday night whether the negotiators, who have engaged in marathon talks for more than two months, would be able to strike a deal on a sweeping immigration package or instead fall victim to philosophical and political differences.
Backers cite U.S. interest
Their broad framework would increase border security and verification of legal status for employment, provide a chance for legal status to the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants and create a temporary worker program.
Backers of a merit-based system argue it's in America's interest to limit family reunification to immediate relatives spouses and children and end the practice of allowing people to petition to bring in adult siblings, parents and other relatives.
“I don't think it's at all difficult for us to say, 'If you come in this country and you are given the blessings of American citizenship that you are not then able to turn around and demand that your mother and father and brothers and sisters and all their wives and children get to come just because you got accepted,' ” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
“Those people ought to compete, also.”
As GOP lawmakers appear more favorably inclined to Democratic demands to legalize millions of illegal immigrants, they are intent on ensuring that those immigrants can't bring in waves of family members once they gain legal status.
Karen Narasaki, president of the Asian-American Justice Center, questioned whether any system that favors high-skilled workers would work.
“What they are trying to set up doesn't reflect the American economy,” she said, noting that employers are pressing for immigrant labor to fill low-skill, low-pay jobs. “It doesn't reflect what the actual needs are, so therefore it's not going to fix the problem of undocumented immigration.”
Proposal isn't new
Still, policymakers' concern that the U.S. system brings in too many unskilled workers, and doesn't match national economic interest, isn't a new one.
In 1997 the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, headed by former U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan of Houston, urged Congress to drop extended-family preferences and shift admission priorities toward higher-skilled immigrants.
Jerome Vielman, who emigrated from the Philippines with his parents in the 1980s, said he would object to any changes that would hinder immigrant cultures' emphasis on keeping close ties with extended family.
“We travel in clans,” said Vielman, who heads Houston's Asian Pacific-American Heritage Association. “One person makes it (into the country) and it's his duty to bring the entire family in.”
Though Vielman's brother has been waiting in the Philippines for a decade to get his U.S. visa and faces at least several more years of wait because of backlogs Vielman urged lawmakers to preserve the current system.
“It works for our community,” he said.