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April 16, 2014

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Senate’s immigration bill has a first for US: merit-based worker visas

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Steve Marcus

A couple wears shirts calling for immigration reform in different languages during a May Day rally and march for comprehensive immigration reform at the Wednesday, May 1, 2013. The event started at the George Federal Building downtown, then marchers traveled south on Las Vegas Boulevard, finishing with a rally at St. Louis Square near the Stratosphere.

For years, immigration experts and family members of prospective U.S. immigrants have criticized the backlog that awaits green card applicants. Businesses have lamented the insufficient availability of skilled foreign labor.

For example, Filipino siblings of U.S. citizens currently wait two decades for a green card, and every year the allotment for temporary high-skilled employment visas is filled within one month.

The sweeping bill that passed the Senate at the end of June tweaks, and in some cases radically changes, every aspect of the immigration system, from visas for agricultural laborers to how employers hire a legal workforce. Yet, during the heated discussion on border security and illegal immigration, one of the more complex and influential provisions of the bill was mostly overlooked: the merit-based visa program.

The legislation’s merit-based visa uses a point system to score each applicant on various criteria. There are two tiers, one for white-collar workers and one for blue-collar workers, and the immigrants with the highest point totals will win green cards.

“This would be something a bit new for the U.S.,” said Michael Kagan, co-director of the UNLV immigration law clinic. “It takes employment factors, geographic factors and family factors, and incorporates them into one system that is something more flexible and inclusive than what we had before.”

If the legislation becomes law, the system would start in 2018 and would look to increase the number of merit-based visas – and total green cards issued – over the course of 15 years. Caps on visas for immediate relatives of permanent residents would be removed, as well as limits on those who are in the highest-skilled and in-demand professions and those with advanced U.S. degrees in science, math and engineering.

In 2012, 1,032,000 green cards were issued, which includes legal permanent resident visas for refugees, employment-based categories and family-based petitions.

A Migration Policy Institute report on the merit-based visa system estimated that the first year of the legislation’s implementation, between 1,547,000 and 1,735,000 people would receive green cards.

“The plan definitely increases the number of people coming to the U.S. every year,” Kagan said. “And that’s the idea. In general, the idea is that the reason we have illegal immigration and backlogs in the system is because the current thresholds are too low for our family and economic needs.”

Locally, merit-based visas would likely have their biggest effect on UNLV and Bally Technologies, which traditionally are Nevada’s two biggest importers of highly skilled professionals.

The proposed merit-based visa system is a lot like how many colleges today look at applicants, assigning points based on a variety of criteria and awarding admission to those with the highest total score.

Points are awarded based on factors including highest academic degree earned, employment experience in the United States, working in a high-demand field, civic involvement, entrepreneurship, family ties, age (with younger immigrants earning more points) and country of origin.

Those who are employed or have employment experience in the United States are given preference. Already being employed in the United States or having a job offer earns the applicants extra points.

“People coming directly from abroad, especially if they have no job offer, would generally find it difficult to earn the same number of points as workers in the United States on temporary status,” Madeline Sumption and Claire Bergeron noted in their Migration Policy Institute study.

The legislation also allows more ways for individual workers to petition for their own green card without an employer sponsor. For example, entrepreneurs, if they create a successful business, will find it easier to apply for permanent residency. Also, any person who holds a doctorate can apply for a green card, with no numerical limit, even if he or she does not have a job offer.

The Migration Policy Institute study of the program found the provision for Ph.D. holders to be “ill-considered,” noting it is “open-ended” and there is “no guarantee that their skills are needed or that they can find employment.”

As part of the immigration overhaul, the Senate proposed eliminating the Diversity Visa program, commonly referred to as the lottery, which awards 50,000 visas to immigrants from underrepresented countries. Under the merit-based point system, someone from one of those countries will receive extra points on their application.

“Because of the way it integrates the diversity program, there is an advantage for immigrants from Africa or Europe and a disadvantage for those from Mexico and Asia,” Kagan said.

Additionally, some avenues for family sponsorship have been eliminated. Siblings and adult married children of U.S. citizens will no longer be eligible for green cards based on that criterion alone. To make up for those changes the Senate plan gives points to the family members of U.S. citizens. Additionally, the cap on green cards for the spouses and children of legal permanent residents has been removed.

Applicants with the most points will receive green cards, with half of the allotment going to the white-collar tier and half going to the blue-collar tier.

Canada has a point-based system for its employment-related immigration, as well. However, there are a minimum number of points an immigrant must have to qualify in Canada. In the Senate proposal, there is no minimum, but the green cards go to the applicants with the most points.

“The Canadian system is similar, but in Canada the employment system works really well because the individual provinces can make adjustments,” said Las Vegas immigration attorney Ed Prudhomme. “The provinces can adjust the numbers so if they a need more of a certain type of worker in Alberta, and they have a demand for a different type of worker in Quebec, they can accommodate that.”

The number of visas issued in the United States will be determined based on demand for workers and U.S. unemployment rates. Several aspects of how the merit-based system would work, though, have yet to be worked out.

“The whole idea of the point system is new (to the United States),” Kagan said. “Once we have the structure of a point system in place, Congress can adjust it as needed. They can tinker with the program as needs become apparent. If we need more nurses, they can provide more visas for that skill and less for something else.”

Built into the plan is a strategy to help eliminate the current backlog of visa applicants. Immigrants in the country now without legal status will go through a separate system to first earn registered provisional immigrant status and, later, permanent residency.

“The U.S., when compared to European countries, has tended to favor family ties a bit more,” Kagan said. “This bill is trying to put greater emphasis on high level skills and attracting the world’s smartest people. One of the objectives is to make it easier for the best and brightest to come here.”

If an immigrant is accepted for a merit-based visa they must pay $1,500 in addition to the processing fee, and the money will go into the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Trust Fund. The fund will help pay for border security initiatives and other provisions included in the legislation.

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  1. This is a step in the right direction. Clearly the United States needs skilled workers, those who can give in a positive way towards IMPROVING our way of life here, rather than take and abuse it. After watching a newscast showing our Border Patrol busting criminals at the border and just confiscating illegal goods and turning the offenders loose returned back to their country of origin, it sickened me. This is an EPIC FAIL in our border enforcement system!!!

    Clearly our enforcement is there, just cannot function because there are no prisons or capacity in the American infrastructure to deal with all the people they arrest. Money is again, thrown carelessly at a problem. Congress needs to fund the infrastructure that has to warehouse and punish offenders, besides beefing up border security! Insane.

    Before Senators go any further, they need to fix that. Having "secure borders" means nothing when there is NO consequence! These offenders go back and do the same thing over and over again.

    We should be giving merit based visas to those who will ADD to the USA being better in the quality of life. Those who violated the law should NOT be given amnesty.

    Blessings and peace,
    Star