A key provision of a Senate compromise for sweeping immigration reform would pit educated workers and foreigners with wealth against those with fewer skills, advocates for immigrants warned yesterday.
The plan would replace a backlogged system in which employers and family members sponsor immigrants with a complex merit system, giving preference to advanced-degree holders and proficient English speakers.
"For so long, the far right has been saying that they are upset that there are people who are trying to come here legally and have to wait so long," said Kim Propeack, director of advocacy and organizing at immigrant advocacy group CASA of Maryland. "Well, the people greatest hurt under this proposal are the people who have been waiting in line."
Overhauling the legal channels by which immigrants may come to the United States is one element of a voluminous legislative compromise that was still being fine-tuned late yesterday.
Highlights include providing a path to citizenship for the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, fortifying the borders and creating a guest-worker program.
The plan would reduce the backlog for immigrants who applied before May 2005, a process that lawmakers estimate would take eight years. Thereafter, a point system would take effect, with about half of all points based on employment criteria, another quarter toward education, 15 percent on English proficiency and 10 percent on family connections.
Adult children and siblings of U.S. citizens would compete with highly qualified workers for about 380,000 slots. Visas for parents also would be capped.
"It's not an exaggeration to say that this is an incredibly radical change," said Cecilia Munoz, chief lobbyist for Latino advocacy group National Council of La Raza in Washington, adding that the new system creates too much competition among immigrant groups. "That shot at permanent residency status could mean competing with millions of people from around the world. Your chances may be like the chances of winning the lottery."
As immigrant advocates and those who favor tighter borders alike spent yesterday trying to make sense of the extensive bill, both sides agreed that the merit system appeared flawed.
Steven A. Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which favors limiting immigration, said the point plan would be hampered by a huge bureaucracy, rendering it ineffective.
"The idea of a point system is you try to get the best and the brightest," he said. "In actuality, some countries have found it has not really worked that way."
Camarota said the system underscores the flaws of the legislation, saying that any effort to legalize the current population would hurt taxpayers and low-income workers.
"If this isn't amnesty, I don't know what is," he said. "This administration, the previous administration and the administration before that, none of them have been inclined to enforce the law. What makes you think that is going to change now?"
As conservatives have attacked the bill as too lenient toward illegal immigrants, advocacy groups say they are unhappy with the point system and fear that a guest-worker program would create a permanent underclass.
The Senate will open what is expected to be a fierce debate on the compromise next week.
The point system was a critical element of that compromise and is based in part on similar systems in Canada and Europe.
But an expert who has studied the mechanism said it's an "alien concept" for American business leaders, politicians and immigrant supporters to comprehend.
"A lot of people are upset about this, and it certainly recalculates what we value," said Demetrios G. Papademetriou, president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington. "The deal says we value skills and core or nuclear families and we value it most, therefore we will give them more visas."
Employers, who would no long be able to choose and sponsor permanent workers, would likely have a tough time accepting the legislation, he said.
"Point systems are intended to increase the pool of skilled people, which is why countries like them," he said. "We are trying to do the same thing, of course, but we are trying to do it by taking away something that has always made our employers the most competitive: the ability to fish in the global talent pool."
David Leopold of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, who represents corporate clients in Cleveland, said the proposal would have a "terrible effect on employers."
"As broken and as flawed as our system is, to the extent that it protects American workers and wages through the employment process it works," he said. "It allows an employer to hire for a position only after they tested the labor market for an American worker."
Others said they are hopeful that the proposal could be amended to encourage a more even distribution of categories.
"The migrant worker who works in the field has as much to offer to the American economy as the technology worker," said Kevin Appleby, director of the office of migration and refugee policy with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "We can both protect families and ensure our economic future."