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The Immigration Bill: Seeking Skills

May 21, 2007

By Steven Malanga

Will America make a historic shift to an immigration policy based on merit? The bill that the Senate's to start debating this week promises just that.

Such a change would make immigration a bigger plus for our economy—and ameliorate some concerns about the rest of the bill, notably its provisions granting de facto amnesty to many of those here illegally.

America's legal immigration system is now based largely on family ties—meaning you get into this country based on whom you know rather than what you know. About two-thirds of legal immigrants come here because they have some relative who's already won legal U.S. residency. We do also grant some visas based on the applicant's skills, but these are a small part of overall legal U.S. immigration.

Proponents of the family-based system argue that it encourages "family values" and promotes family reunification. Not a bad principle, but it has come to be virtually the only one: Each immigrant establishes a "chain" of family relations who are also eligible to come. Thus, after 40 years of "family reunification" policy, the backlog of family-based visa applications is enormous.

Other countries that are magnets for immigrants have moved to a system based on "economic merit"—with startling results.

Take Australia. Starting in the mid 1980s, it shifted from a "family" immigration policy to one meant to bring in workers who would answer the country's economic needs. The new system identifies the jobs most in demand and rewards applicants who have experience in those fields and who have overall skills, such as language proficiency.

The results have been dramatic. Where 70 percent of Australia's immigration used to be based on family relations, now 70 percent is based on the applicants' skills. Economic assimilation is much more rapid: One recent study found that, five years after arrival, the typical immigrant earns as much as the average native-born Australian.

In America, by contrast, studies show a wide gap between the earnings of immigrants and those of native-born workers—a gap that is growing larger over time as our immigrant population increasingly lacks the education and skills to make it in our specialized economy.

Shifting to this skilled-based system has made Australia a powerful player in the worldwide scramble for talent and skills. Its former immigration minister has boasted that the country is "beating the U.S." and other industrialized countries in recruiting efforts.

Australia has even cut deals with some Eastern European countries to welcome their skilled blue-collar workers. Those same workers could never get into the United States—even though they would easily find jobs here—unless they came illegally or were lucky enough to have a family member here legally to sponsor them.

If the bill truly shifts to a "merit" system, that should allay fears about another part of the measure—its path to legal status for the 11 million or so illegal immigrants already here. The proposed legislation would allow undocumented aliens to establish legal residency if they pay some $6,500 in fees and fines and go back to their home countries to obtain proper documentation.

The two main objections? 1) Amnesty rewards people who broke the law. 2) Past amnesties have only encouraged further immigration, in two ways. The bill encourages new illegal immigration by creating an expectation of future amnesties—and it adds to the pool of legal applicants by starting a whole new host of "chains."

As a matter of practical politics, however, no immigration reform will become law unless it makes real provision for today's illegals. This package includes changes—measures to boost border security and to toughen penalties for hiring illegals—that should reduce the problems amnesty might bring.

The shift to a skills-based system also helps—because the amnesty wouldn't create 11 million new "chains." Many of those already here would be legalized, but only their spouses and minor children would then gain some rights to immigrate; the chains wouldn't expand from there, as they did under past amnesties.

Emotions run high on all sides of this issue; we'll have lots of heated debate, and probably more compromise, as the legislation moves ahead. But although liberals and conservatives will focus on the hot-button issue of amnesty, the real linchpin of this legislation is a shift to a skills-based immigration system. If that survives the fights ahead, we may actually have a chance to create an immigration policy that finally works for America.

Adapted from the City Journal, where Steven Malanga is senior editor.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/05212007/postopinion/opedcolumnists/the_immigration_bill__seeking_skills_opedcolumnists_steven_malanga.htm

 

 
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