Preference for educated, skills immigrants likely to be hotly contested in immigration legislation debate

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Beginning in June, the U.S. Senate will debate legislation that could legalize most of the 12 million illegal immigrants already living in the U.S. and create a guest worker program and an electronic verification system to screen job applicants. The legislation was crafted by the White House and a bipartisan group of senators during three months of private negotiations. It is expected to be debated for at least two weeks.

A University of North Texas political scientist who is the co-editor of a book on the immigration of highly skilled workers says one area of the bill that could be hotly debated is the point system for those who want to receive visas, which would give preference to potential immigrants with advanced degrees and highly specialized skills. Dr. Idean Salehyan, assistant professor of political science, says the proposed point system is very similar to Canada's immigration system, "which has been very successful in attracting skilled workers."

"Certain sectors of the U.S. economy, particularly in low-skilled services, rely on immigrant labor. A point system could work in principle, although the details of it will be very important," Salehyan says. "The best system would be one that is flexible, and that can be adjusted to deal with labor shortages in critical sectors of the economy. A fixed and rigid point system can become counter-productive in the future."

The bill gives those who are already in the U.S. illegally a chance to obtain a Z visa after paying a $5,000 fine and fees, and get on track for permanent residency, which could take between eight and 13 years. Heads of household would have to return to their home countries first. Salehyan says the return requirement will likely be another controversial aspect of the bill.

"Many illegal immigrants in the United States have children or other family members who are

U.S. citizens. Requiring them to return for any prolonged period of time is likely to split apart families,

and will be opposed by pro-immigration groups," he says. "Many immigrants will not return home if they believe that they will be shut out in the future, or if they have to leave family members in the U.S. behind. The fine is somewhat hefty, but is a reasonable compromise solution to avoid last year's deadlock on the immigration debate. Most undocumented immigrants would probably be willing to pay the fine in order to earn the right to work in the U.S."

Critics of the proposed legislation have said that it is amnesty for illegal aliens, although its authors have steered clear of calling it amnesty. But Salehyan points out that a true amnesty program is one in which illegal immigrants "would have their status adjusted with no penalties."

"This bill does not fit the strict definition of an amnesty because people must pay a fine before having their status adjusted. The current bill is certainly not as lenient as the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which was an amnesty program," he says.

The bill also calls for not having the guest worker program - which would grant two-year visas that could be renewed twice, with the guest workers having to return home for a year between two years of work - and not having the path to permanent residency for illegal aliens already living in the U.S. begin until border security improvements and the high-tech worker identification program were completed. Salehyan calls this requirement "a compromise solution between hard-liners and moderates" on the immigration issue.

"Border enforcement is not likely to be effective on its own without sufficient incentives for people to come and work in the U.S. legally," he says. "This provision was probably included to satisfy members of Congress who take a tough stance on border enforcement, but it would be more effective to expand legal visa programs and border security in tandem. Workers and employers will not wait for a fence to be erected and we are only delaying the process by demanding that border security comes first."

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