Top Talent Could Lose Fast Track to U.S.

By Anthony Faiola and Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 26, 2007

NEW YORK -- Would America open its doors for the next Albert Einstein? Under the new immigration bill, the answer is maybe, but maybe not.

For years, foreign-born Nobel Prize winners, corporate officers, and top talents in sports, arts and sciences have had a fast track to permanent residency, and eventually citizenship, in the United States. In the name of attracting the world's greatest and brightest, authorities have granted these luminaries priority access to green cards under a little-known provision offered to "aliens of extraordinary abilities."

It has provided a way for a host of notable foreigners -- among them John Lennon and Yoko Ono and Venezuelan-born New York Yankee Bobby Abreu -- to make America their home.

But the bill now being debated in Congress would do away with the special "EB-1" preferred-status category, effectively forcing foreign VIPs to take a number and get in line with everyone else. They would be subject to a complex point system to determine their eligibility -- assessing education levels, English abilities, experience in the United States and other factors -- just as any engineer from India or farmworker from Mexico.

Although the bill has come under fire from some who call it elitist -- it would tip the scales toward better-educated immigrants with good English -- the elimination of the EB-1 category would effectively mean that the most elite foreigners seeking to build lives in the United States would face new hurdles.

"It was almost like having a gold card or an entrance to a private club, but under this new bill, you won't have that anymore," said Muzaffar Chishti, an immigration specialist at New York University. "If they want to come here on a permanent basis, they will certainly be in a more disadvantaged position than they were in the past."

Leading critics of the bill say it is fraught with problems for top universities, Fortune 500 companies, sports recruiters and cultural institutions seeking to lure global leaders in their fields to work in the United States. Though many such candidates would rise to the top of the point system based on their academic backgrounds and language skills, experts say permanent residency would by no means be assured. They note that even Nobel Prize winners occasionally have weak English skills, while highly skilled athletes and musicians often bypass traditional schooling and do not possess high school diplomas or university degrees.

Consider this: If Bill Gates -- who dropped out of Harvard -- were foreign-born and subject to the new point system, would Microsoft be able to hire him to live and work in the United States?

"There is no importance being placed on the intangible talents of a Chinese pianist or a Latin American baseball star," said immigration lawyer Jonathan Ginsburg, who represents leading foreign-born musicians. "My overall impression is that the Senate proposes to deemphasize ability -- extraordinary ability -- in favor of paper qualification and a narrow range of experience."

Last year, 36,960 individuals and family members were granted "priority" permanent resident status under the "extraordinary abilities" category. Under the 100-point system established by the bill, "extraordinary or ordinary" ability in a specialized field would offer, at most, eight additional points to a candidate. That is less than the 10 points that would be awarded to applicants holding a two-year college degree.

"Every effort has been made to create a balanced system," said a Senate Republican leadership aide who demanded anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the issue. "The aim is to focus efforts on attracting those immigrants who have the combination of skills, education and English-language proficiency that will make them productive Americans."

But the prospect puts some rarefied institutions on edge.

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