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Immigration bill would spark surge of legal arrivals

The immigration debate often focuses on people in the U.S. illegally, but a reform bill's biggest initial effect could be a sharp rise in legal immigration.

April 13, 2013|By Brian Bennett and Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau
  • Guest workers from Mexico arrive in Vass, N.C., in February for seasonal farm work, a legal form of immigration. The immigration reform bill being discussed in the Senate would greatly expand legal immigration.
Guest workers from Mexico arrive in Vass, N.C., in February for seasonal… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

WASHINGTON — While much of the debate over immigration has focused on the fate of the estimated 11 million people in the U.S. without legal authorization, one of the biggest immediate impacts of the reform bill being prepared in the Senate would be a sudden, large surge in legal migration.

The U.S. admits about 1 million legal immigrants per year, more than any other country. That number could jump by more than 50% over the next decade under the terms of the immigration reform bill that a bipartisan group of senators expects to unveil as early as Tuesday. The impact would be felt nationwide, but areas that already have large immigrant communities would probably see much of the increase.

The immigration package includes at least four major provisions that would increase the number of legal immigrants, according to people familiar with it. Some of the parts could generate as much controversy as the provisions dealing with those who enter the country illegally or overstay their visas, according to those with long experience of the politics of immigration.

PHOTOS: The immigration reform debate

Supporters say that higher levels of legal immigration would meet the U.S. need for certain kinds of workers. Increased legal migration also would reduce most of the incentive for illegal border crossings, backers of the plan say, and would allow border agents to focus on smugglers and people with violent criminal records.

Opponents such as Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who has long opposed measures to increase immigration levels, say new workers would depress wages and crowd out Americans looking for work during a time of persistently high unemployment.

"The masters of the universe in glass towers and suites, they may not be impacted by this, but millions of struggling American families will," Sessions said in an interview Friday. "We do need to be sure we aren't exacerbating unemployment and wage erosion in America."

The surge would come in several ways: The bill aims to eliminate the current backlog of roughly 4 million people waiting to be reunited with family members in the U.S. The 11 million now in the country without legal authorization would be eligible for citizenship only after that backlog was resolved. Reunification efforts would require boosting the number of visas issued each year. To keep the additional inflow under control, the bill would stop allowing adult siblings of immigrants to qualify, but children and parents would continue to be eligible.

U.S. immigration law: Decades of debate

In addition to family unification, which allows people into the country permanently, the bill also aims to increase temporary visas for both high-wage and low-wage workers. The number of visas for high-tech workers could nearly double to more than 120,000 per year. At the other end of the wage scale, a new visa system would allow businesses to bring in workers for jobs including janitors, housekeepers and meatpackers. The numbers would start small, but as the unemployment rate declined, it could reach 200,000 a year by the end of the decade. And growers could bring a total of about 330,000 new farmworkers into the country during the decade. At least some of those low-wage temporary workers eventually would be allowed to seek permanent residency.

The bill's authors expect that legal immigration eventually would decline again, but only 10 years after the bill passed, once the backlog of residency applications shrank.

"The increased number in the years following the enactment of this bill reflects us having to clean up what has been a broken immigration system for many years," said Angela Kelley, an immigration expert at the Center for American Progress, a liberal policy group in Washington.

"We had too few visas for too long," Kelley said. "Congress hasn't upgraded our immigration system in 23 years."

The last time Congress overhauled the admissions process for immigrants was the Immigration Act of 1990. In the years after the bill's passage, the total number of legal immigrants increased by 40%, from about 500,000 per year to more than 700,000.

But the new system didn't allow enough flexibility as the U.S. continued to shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge-based economy, said Audrey Singer, immigration policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"How do we get this right?" Singer asked. "The question is, can we come up with a mechanism that allows us to have a more adjustable system over time and have more flexibility?"

In theory, legal immigration has broad public support in both parties. In practice, changes to the immigration system can generate fierce political opposition.

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