Report: U.S. Should Give Preference to Skilled Immigrants Over Relatives

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009; 4:47 PM

The United States should cut back on the admission of immigrants who are extended-family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents to make room for more skilled workers, a new independent panel recommended Tuesday.

The 20-member panel, set up by the Brookings Institution and Duke University's Kenan Institute for Ethics, reflected an "unprecedented" range of liberal and conservative thinkers, and was designed to provide a model rather than a specific road map for policy makers as the Obama administration hopes to take up immigration reform early next year, said Noah Pickus, director of the institute and convener of the group.

The panel's 36-page report, released Tuesday, added weight to calls for Congress to create a standing commission to advise it in setting future immigration levels, variations of which have been proposed by the AFL-CIO and Service Employees International Union and the Council on Foreign Relations.

The new report also proposes a way for opposing camps who seek tougher enforcement against illegal immigration or the legalization of many of the roughly 11 million who are inside the United States to meet both goals at the same time.

Specifically, the Brookings-Duke group said a condition for any legalization program should be certification that E-Verify, a government system that electronically confirms the immigration status and work eligibility of employees and potential employees, meets certain effectiveness ratings. Pairing such goals would lead to a "trust-but-verify" approach that both sides might support, Pickus said.

The group also said that the U.S. government should rapidly clear a years-long immigration backlog of 600,000 spouses and minor children of U.S. permanent residents who seek visas. While reaffirming U.S. policy favoring family reunification, however, the group said preferences for adult children, siblings and other relatives of citizens and green-card holders -- a group estimated at 4.3 million -- should be ended, with U.S. application fees returned with interest.

Closing the door to extended relatives and another 50,000 people admitted each year under a "diversity" lottery would make room to increase from 180,000 to 330,000 the number of skilled workers and their family members whom the U.S. could admit each year, the group said.

Overall, the Brookings-Duke group said the current distribution of the roughly 1.1 million immigrants legally admitted per year should shift from 63 percent family members, 16 percent work-based and 21 percent refugees, asylum-seekers and other; to a ratio "tilting" toward skills.

"Highly educated and trained scientists, mathematicians, and engineers can make particularly significant contributions to our economy and society," the group wrote, citing the "stiff global competition for such individuals."

The panel's recommendations are likely to put off advocates on both sides, Pickus said, which is partly the point. The group, for example, specifically opposed creating or expanding guest worker programs, a key provision sought by former president George W. Bush in 2006 and 2007 when Congress tried and failed to tackle immigration reform, and which some Senate Republicans have said must be part of any deal.

Senate Democrats also will likely object to several other of the panels ideas, such as having a worker verification system as a "trigger" for any legalization program, tighter restrictions on family admissions, and a proposal to limit eligibility to illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least five years, among other requirements.

Pickus said the panel's hope is to "reset the debate" beyond rigid lines set by adversarial interest groups or demagogues on either side, and to provide ways both sides could see progress toward their goals.

"The issue is trust," he said, adding that the panel's members included conservative Harvard historian Stephan Thernstrom and Michael S. Teitelbaum, a demographer who has advocated for reduced immigration, on the right and liberal players such as Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute and Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks.

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