Immigration Bill's Point System Worries Some Groups

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 27, 2007

For weeks, U.S. senators wrestled among themselves and with White House officials over the question of what mix of skills, background and experience prospective immigrants should bring to their new country.

The answer they came up with, embodied in the immigration bill now on the Senate floor, would represent a radical shift in the philosophy of the U.S. immigration system. Rather than focus on reunifying families, the system would emphasize bringing in better-educated, higher-skilled immigrants who would help the United States compete in the world economy.

Other elements of the immigration bill have, so far, proved more controversial, such as the initiative to legalize the status of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. But that seems likely to change as lawmakers and interest groups scrutinize the fine print of the 380-page bill.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is raising concerns about a new point system for permanent residency in the bill, which would favor new immigrants with advanced degrees or who work in engineering or the sciences. Business groups, which the White House had counted on for support, seem lukewarm to the idea.

Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), one of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, is serving notice that he will try to change the proposal on the Senate floor, to give a higher value to reuniting families. The Senate will resume debate on the measure when it returns next week from the Memorial Day recess.

Obama has called the point plan a "radical experiment in social engineering." In a speech last week, he said the bill "fails to recognize the fundamental morality of uniting Americans with their family members. It also places a person's job skills over his character and work ethic. How many of our forefathers would have measured up under the point system? How many would have been turned back at Ellis Island?"

White House officials and lawmakers who developed the initiative defend it as a rational response to the requirements of the world economy. They note that the new plan would also favor workers in high-demand but lower-skill occupations, such as home health-care workers or receptionists, and it would maintain a preference, albeit less, for family members.

"We have a system today that is very heavily weighted to whether or not you happen to have a family member in the United States," said Joel D. Kaplan, the White House deputy chief of staff and point person on immigration. "There was a view that, if you really wanted to have an immigration system that was geared to making sure we were competitive in the 21st century, we had to try to rebalance that . . . and focus more on our national interests."

The point system was a relatively late addition to the immigration debate on Capitol Hill, with the Bush administration apparently adding it to deliberations after studying similar systems in Canada and Australia, according to lawmakers and aides.

Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), one of the key Republican negotiators, said that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff mentioned the concept to GOP senators sometime this spring as they were debating how to fashion a new bill.

"It really became quite clear to us that the U.S. system was completely out of sync with how other countries determined which immigrants they would accept," said Stewart A. Baker, assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security.

The idea appealed to Kyl and other Senate Republicans because it held out the prospect of ending what they call chain migration, family members bringing in still more family members. Baker noted that it is one thing to give legal status to 12 million illegal immigrants, but that if each were to bring in his or her relatives, "you're talking about 30 million" prospective immigrants.

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