Wednesday, May 09, 2007
San Fransisco Chronicle: Immigrant Plan
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
(05-09) 04:00 PDT Washington -- Key senators and the White House are attempting to negotiate a "grand bargain" on immigration that would grant visas to immigrants based more on their skills as workers than their family ties to those already here.
As part of the deal, the estimated 12 million people now in the country illegally -- including about 2.1 million in California -- would be allowed to remain here.
After two months of intense, closed-door negotiations, major stumbling blocks remain, and time has all but run out before the Monday deadline set by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for debate to begin on a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
Both sides in the immigration debate that has roiled the country for more than a year are under intense pressure to reform a system that all agree is broken. Legislators are getting heat from businesses, immigrant lobbying groups and those most opposed to easing immigration -- as well as the broader public. Polls indicate that voters are dismayed by what they perceive as widespread law-breaking by those entering the country illegally but shrink from such punitive measures as mass deportation.
In the closely divided Congress, neither party alone has the power to change immigration law to suit its tastes. House Republicans tried and failed to do so last year with a border crackdown. This year, Democrats, who narrowly control the chambers, need a hefty chunk of the GOP in the House and Senate to pass any legalization plan, given the fractures in their own party over such issues as a giant temporary worker program that could intensify wage competition among lower-skilled workers.
President Bush is bent on making immigration reform a legacy of his presidency, and he has detailed two Cabinet secretaries, Michael Chertoff of Homeland Security and Carlos Gutierrez of the Commerce Department, to try to hammer out a deal. Shifting the overall immigration policy from a reliance on family ties to a skills-based system represents a last-ditch effort to win over Republicans who were opposed to Bush's earlier overtures on legalization.
The proposal would require both sides to swallow hard, but it offers each the tantalizing prospect of long-sought goals that otherwise appear unattainable.
Republicans who have taken a hard line on immigration, such as Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, would have to consent to a sweeping legalization program for the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country -- an effort conservatives denounce as amnesty.
Democrats, particularly Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, would have to agree to a big shift in the system Kennedy authored in 1965, which established family ties as the basis of U.S. immigration. Immigrant groups, particularly Latinos and Asians who make heavy use of the extended family categories, are deeply wedded to the principle of what they call family reunification.
But both sides could see huge payoffs.
Democrats would get a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and more green card slots to clear up the long backlogs for family members now waiting for legal entry.
Republicans would get a change in the system that would weigh a prospective immigrant's skills more heavily than kinship. That is a key concern of Republicans who oppose legalizing the 12 million in the country now because under today's system, these new legal permanent residents could sponsor their extended families later. So-called chain migration proved a potent restrictionist argument last year, causing worries in both parties.
Many Republicans also contend that the U.S. immigration system should prioritize the national economic interest rather than the personal interest of immigrants themselves and that the United States is admitting far too many unskilled people, many of whom are high school dropouts.
They cite the 1997 findings of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, led by the late Rep. Barbara Jordan, D-Texas, that called for "shifting admission priorities away from the extended family and toward the nuclear family, and away from the unskilled and toward the higher skilled immigrant."
Key Democratic negotiators have shown interest in such a bargain. They are not necessarily averse to giving more preference to skilled immigrants. But they want to see the details of how such a system would be structured.
Supporters are quick to note that immediate families -- spouses and minor children -- still would be allowed under any new system to accompany the primary immigrant, as current law allows.
The proposal "doesn't include immediate family," said Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican and Cuban immigrant who is a key broker in the talks. "It has to be understood, this is about extended family, about changing the dynamics of immigration for future flows to one that is more in keeping with what every other country in the world does pretty much. Which is, what is in the best interests of the country, what are the immigration needs of the country, not just what is the need of the family, particularly distant family."
Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand are cited as models. All are immigrant-receiving countries that use point systems, which place priorities on such things as education, work experience and language to receive immigration benefits.
The current U.S. system of family-based preferences dates to 1965 and is weighted heavily to kinship, or what is called family reunification. More than 60 percent of all legal immigrants enter under family preferences, the reverse of the ratios used in Canada and other countries using point systems. About 15 percent are employment based. In addition, about half of the quotas reserved for employment-based migrants are taken by spouses and children.
The family categories include not only spouses and children of legal immigrants but their adult children and siblings. U.S. citizens can also sponsor their parents. Waiting lines to receive legal permanent residence, or green cards, under such categories extend more than a decade for relatives from China and India, and as long as two decades and more from Mexico and the Philippines.
"Denying brothers and sisters (immigration benefits) would impose on ethnic groups a narrow definition of family," said Bill Ong Hing, a professor of law and Asian American Studies at UC Davis who testified Tuesday to the House Judiciary Committee's panel on immigration, chaired by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose.
Republicans asked Reid for more time Tuesday, but the Senate leader said a deal must be in place by next week when he intends to begin debate.
"I appreciate the pressure he's put on us," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who supported last year's sweeping Senate legalization bill. "The only thing that will fix the problem would be a bipartisan new bill."
Democrats would get:
A path to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, plus more green card slots.
Republicans would get:
A new immigration system that would weigh the skills of a prospective immigrant more heavily than family connections.
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE