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Immigration plan doesn't add up, critics say

Businesses fault the Senate bill's point system, saying it can't keep pace with the changing economy.

May 24, 2007|Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Jim Puzzanghera | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Two immigrants apply for a green card and the government has to choose: Who gets it?

"Ray," 45, is a computer programmer from Singapore with a graduate degree. He speaks fluent English and has never worked in the United States, but he has a job offer from a U.S. company.

"Carla," 29, is a hospital orderly from Mexico with a high school equivalency diploma. She knows enough English to have passed the government's citizenship tests in English and civics and has worked for six years in the United States, where she lives with her stepfather and her mother, a legal resident.

It sounds like a word problem from a high school textbook, but it's from a congressional staff summary of the new Senate immigration bill, which is using simple math to offer a solution to long-standing philosophical divides over who should be granted a green card, which signifies legal permanent residence.

By assigning points for quantitative factors, including education, employment, English fluency and extended family, a bipartisan group of senators hopes to calm the passionate immigration debates of the last 40 years.

But as details emerge, the same businesses and legislators the formula was designed to reconcile have started picking it apart -- determined to either rewrite the formula to suit their needs or scrap it altogether.

Randel Johnson, vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, called the formula a "Rubik's Cube" that pitted businesses against each other.

"We see a need in both skilled and unskilled types of jobs, and we do have a concern that it favors the skilled over the unskilled," Johnson said.

Companies that depend on high-skilled labor don't like the plan either.

"What they want to do is create a whole new layer of bureaucracy and expect that [it] is going to keep pace with the changing economy,'' said Robert Hoffman, vice president of government and public affairs for Oracle Corp.

The point system would mark a radical departure from current immigration policy, which largely favors family ties in distributing about 1.1 million coveted green cards a year.

Under the new system, the number of green cards allocated to relatives of either a U.S. citizen or a current green card holder would fall from 87% to 62%, while those based on occupation would nearly triple, from 13% to 38%.

Applicants awarded at least 55 of the 100 points possible under the proposed system would probably get green cards, although that "pass mark" could be adjusted with changing demand for higher- or lower-skilled workers, congressional staff members said. They could also receive up to 10 points for having extended family living legally in the U.S. -- but only after accumulating 55 points based on their education, employment and English fluency.

Under the congressional summary of the proposed formula, Carla would score 24 points for working in a high-demand healthcare job and 10 points for having worked in the U.S. more than five years. She would receive 6 points each for her employer's recommendation, high school equivalency diploma, passing score on a government English and civics tests, and being the adult child of a legal resident, plus 3 points for being between the ages of 25 and 39.

Carla's total: 61 points.

Ray would receive 28 points for his graduate degree in software engineering, 15 points for scoring above 75 on a standardized English proficiency test and 6 points for his U.S. job offer.

Ray's total: 49 points.

High-tech companies, which currently recruit immigrants with specialized skills and then sponsor them for either temporary visas or a separate pool of 140,000 annual employment-based green cards, argue that they need workers like Ray. Although they could still recruit workers under the proposed system, they say there is no guarantee that the new formula will deliver the specific ones they want.

"We don't understand what it is that's so inefficient about employers selecting the talent rather than the point system doing it for us," said Hoffman, the Oracle official who also heads Compete America, a coalition of companies and business groups that opposes the proposal.

With point values written into federal law, Hoffman said, it would be difficult to adjust the system to reflect rapidly changing needs at companies like Google, which in 2004 saw demand spike for mathematicians to develop search algorithms.

The point system doesn't account for differences in training among highly skilled workers, potentially treating a master's in engineering from, say, Caltech, as equivalent to a degree from a less-respected school in the U.S. or abroad, technology industry lobbyists said.

The point system also worries business owners who employ low-skilled immigrants and fear their workers will be at a disadvantage when it comes to accruing points.

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