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Skills versus families

We can open the door to more skilled workers without slamming it shut on family unification.

June 02, 2007

THE IMMIGRATION REFORM bill devised by a bipartisan group of 10 senators has been criticized, mostly by Democrats, for subordinating the traditional emphasis on family unification to a strategy of attracting the best and the brightest. Actually, reports of the death of family unification are greatly exaggerated, as is the supposed exaltation of "merit-based" immigration. The truth is that the compromise bill moves only modestly in the direction of skills-based immigration policy, and an amendment already added in the Senate would make it harder for employers to hire foreigners with coveted skills who might later become permanent residents and citizens.

The authors of the bill are right to propose that the country be more welcoming of high-skilled and entrepreneurial foreigners -- both as temporary workers and as candidates for permanent residence and citizenship. They are also right to offset increases in the number of skilled immigrants with some narrowing of the definition of "family" for purposes of unification. The bill would abolish some current preferences for the adult relatives of citizens and permanent residents, but those relationships would still count -- along with skills and command of English -- in a new "point system" for evaluating immigrants. This is a modest change, not the cruel assault on "family values" that some Democrats are decrying.

The compromise bill also would increase the annual number of H-1B visas awarded to skilled foreign employees of U.S. firms, from the current 65,000 (a quota that is quickly exhausted) to at least 115,000. But in a vote before this week's recess, the Senate unwisely adopted an amendment by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that would increase from $1,500 to $5,000 the fee charged to companies for each high-skilled worker they bring to the United States. The proceeds would endow scholarships for students from this country.

We support generous aid to Americans studying math and science, and agree that, in the long run, the country cannot remain competitive solely on the skills of immigrants. The Sanders amendment, however, is a populist gimmick that needlessly penalizes employers that bring talented people to this country. It belongs on the congressional equivalent of the cutting-room floor.

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