By ROBERT PEAR (June 5, 2007)
WASHINGTON, June 4 — Ekaterina D. Atanasova, a civil engineer from Bulgaria who lives in southern Maine, wants to bring her husband to the United States. Under the Senate immigration bill, he would get high marks — at least 74 points — because he too is a civil engineer, has a master’s degree and is fluent in English.
But Herminia Licona Sandoval, a cleaning woman from Honduras, would have no hope of bringing her 30-year-old son to the United States. He works as a driver at an oil refinery, lacks a high school diploma, speaks little English and would fare poorly under the Senate bill, earning fewer than 15 of a possible 100 points.
The point system, one of the most significant features of the Senate immigration bill, will be at the heart of the debate as Congress resumes work on the legislation after a weeklong recess. It has already stirred passions because it would profoundly change the criteria for picking future immigrants.
President Bush and some senators champion the point system as a way to select immigrants most likely to make long-term economic contributions to the United States. Supporters say it would be the most systematic effort in the nation’s history to evaluate would-be immigrants, using objective criteria to measure job skills, education and other attributes.
But the plan is provoking strong opposition from leading Democrats, who say it smacks of social engineering and reflects a class bias.
Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, said, “The point system would have prevented my own parents, a carpenter and a seamstress, from coming to this country.”
This week, the Senate is expected to vote on an amendment offered by Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, to end the point system after five years. Senators will also vote on a Republican proposal to eliminate “bonus points” that could be given to many illegal immigrants who gain legal status and then seek green cards.
The bill, written by the White House and a bipartisan group of a dozen senators, would establish “a merit-based system” to evaluate people seeking the green cards, as permanent-residence visas are known.
An applicant could receive a maximum of 100 points. Up to 75 points would be allocated for job skills and education, with 15 for English-language proficiency and 10 for family ties.
The criteria favor professionals with graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But the point system would also reward people who work in 30 “high demand” occupations, like home health care and food service.
Spouses and minor children of United States citizens would still be allowed to immigrate without limits. But siblings and adult children of citizens and lawful permanent residents would be subject to the point system. They could get a maximum of 10 points for family ties, provided they had already earned 55 points for job skills, education and English language ability.
Under the bill, Congress would set the number of points for each attribute. The selection criteria could not be changed for 14 years. Decisions on individual cases would be within the “sole and unreviewable discretion” of the secretary of homeland security.
Supporters of the point system say it would make the United States more competitive in a global economy by admitting people with skills needed in the American workplace — people who might otherwise go to work for foreign companies.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said: “America needs an immigration system that can compete for the best minds that exist in the world. The new system does it better than the old system.”
But Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, said she had found no one in her Silicon Valley district who thought it was a good idea.
“The point system is like the Soviet Union,” Ms. Lofgren said. “The government is saying, in effect, ‘We have a five-year plan for the economy, and we will decide with this point system what mix of skills is needed.’ That is not the way a market-based capitalist economy works best.”
The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has also expressed “serious objection to the point system,” saying it could split families.
As the Senate resumed debate Monday on the point system and other features of the immigration measure, the leadership explored whether to try to force a final vote by the end of the week or let lawmakers continue to propose changes.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said, “We need to have the maximum opportunity for the largest number of amendments to be considered before we entertain the notion of shutting down debate on this important measure.”
But prolonging debate provides opponents of the measure more opportunity to win changes that could shatter the bipartisan coalition behind it. Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, a chief Republican architect of the bill, warned of looming “killer amendments” on issues like guest workers and family migration that, if adopted, would lead him to oppose the bill.
Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, the majority leader, said he and Mr. McConnell were still trying to devise an end game for the legislation. “Everyone has been home and has been barraged on all sides of this issue,” Mr. Reid said Monday.
The debate has major implications for the economy. About 23 million workers — one in seven — were born abroad. In the last decade, foreign-born workers accounted for half of the growth in the labor force. The Labor Department says the nation will need immigrants to meet looming labor shortages.
Stephen W. Yale-Loehr, who teaches immigration law at Cornell University, said: “A key theoretical advantage of a point system is the ability to respond to changing economic needs. Unfortunately, the Senate bill would lock in the criteria for at least 14 years. The economy changes much faster than that.”
The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research center, analyzed the likely effects of the Senate bill by examining Census Bureau data. It reached these conclusions:
¶Immigrants from many Asian countries would do well. In the last 15 years, more than three-fourths of immigrants from India, and more than half of those from China, the Philippines and South Korea had bachelor’s degrees or higher. Most immigrants from India and the Philippines report speaking English well.
¶Immigrants from Latin America would “face more difficulties” in getting green cards. More than 40 percent of recent immigrants from this region are in the preferred age range, 25 to 39, but many lack educational credentials and English language skills. More than 60 percent of adult immigrants from Mexico have not completed high school. Just 5 percent have college degrees. Only 15 percent of recent Mexican immigrants are proficient in English.
¶The United States has received comparatively few immigrants from Africa, but many of them have characteristics that would help them earn points.
About two-fifths of recent African immigrants are in the preferred age group. Two-thirds are proficient in English. And 38 percent have a bachelor’s or higher degree.
The proposed point system would help people like Ms. Atanasova, who is not yet a citizen, and her husband, Nikola K. Nikolov, both 29 years old.
Mr. Nikolov could get 20 points because he has a specialty occupation, an additional 8 points because he is an engineer, 28 points because he has a master’s degree in engineering, 3 points because he is in the preferred age group and 15 points because he is fluent in English.
Reached at his home in Bulgaria, Mr. Nikolov said he believed he could “manage quite well” in the United States.
But the point system would adversely affect people like Ms. Licona Sandoval, the Honduran who cleans government offices at night. “It will be impossible to bring my son, Jose Lionel Duron Licona,” she said.
Australia, Britain and Canada use point systems. But experts in Australia and Canada said the United States was ignoring lessons that could be learned from their experience.
Arnold J. Conyer, a lawyer who is president of the Migration Institute of Australia, said it was important to accept some immigrants specifically sponsored by employers, a feature of current law that would be largely replaced by the point system.
“Employers with an immediate need can sponsor a particular person for a particular job opening,” Mr. Conyer said. “On the other hand, the point system is used to build up a supply of good-quality stock that will be available to Australian employers in the future.”
Howard D. Greenberg, an immigration lawyer in Toronto, said Canada’s experience showed the risks of relying too heavily on a point system.
“A candidate can succeed under the Canadian point system without having a job offer,” Mr. Greenberg said. “As a result, we have some professionals, like doctors, who perform low-skill occupations such as driving taxis until they can find more appropriate work.”
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