Immigrant Plan Puts Job Skills Ahead Of Family

Carolyn Lochhead, San Francisco Chronicle, May 9, 2007

Key senators and the White House are attempting to negotiate a “grand bargain” on immigration that would grant visas to immigrants based more on their skills as workers than their family ties to those already here.

As part of the deal, the estimated 12 million people now in the country illegally—including about 2.1 million in California—would be allowed to remain here.

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The proposal would require both sides to swallow hard, but it offers each the tantalizing prospect of long-sought goals that otherwise appear unattainable.

Republicans who have taken a hard line on immigration, such as Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, would have to consent to a sweeping legalization program for the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country—an effort conservatives denounce as amnesty.

Democrats, particularly Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, would have to agree to a big shift in the system Kennedy authored in 1965, which established family ties as the basis of U.S. immigration. Immigrant groups, particularly Latinos and Asians who make heavy use of the extended family categories, are deeply wedded to the principle of what they call family reunification.

But both sides could see huge payoffs.

Democrats would get a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and more green card slots to clear up the long backlogs for family members now waiting for legal entry.

Republicans would get a change in the system that would weigh a prospective immigrant’s skills more heavily than kinship. That is a key concern of Republicans who oppose legalizing the 12 million in the country now because under today’s system, these new legal permanent residents could sponsor their extended families later. So-called chain migration proved a potent restrictionist argument last year, causing worries in both parties.

Many Republicans also contend that the U.S. immigration system should prioritize the national economic interest rather than the personal interest of immigrants themselves and that the United States is admitting far too many unskilled people, many of whom are high school dropouts.

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Supporters are quick to note that immediate families—spouses and minor children—still would be allowed under any new system to accompany the primary immigrant, as current law allows.

The proposal “doesn’t include immediate family,” said Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican and Cuban immigrant who is a key broker in the talks. “It has to be understood, this is about extended family, about changing the dynamics of immigration for future flows to one that is more in keeping with what every other country in the world does pretty much. Which is, what is in the best interests of the country, what are the immigration needs of the country, not just what is the need of the family, particularly distant family.”

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