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High-skilled immigrants wanted, but Congress can’t agree on rules

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 Click on photo to enlarge or download: At a conference about highly skilled immigration, Susan Martin, of the Institute for Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, answers a question. Gary Freedman, of the University of Texas, center, and Giovanni Facchini, professor of economics at Erasmus University, also spoke about immigration policy. SHFWire photo by Emily WilkinsClick on photo to enlarge or download: At a conference about highly skilled immigration, Susan Martin, of the Institute for Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, answers a question. Gary Freedman, of the University of Texas, center, and Giovanni Facchini, professor of economics at Erasmus University, also spoke about immigration policy. SHFWire photo by Emily WilkinsWASHINGTON - Even when the immigration is legal, the parties still can’t agree on policy changes.

While Senate Democrats were blocking a bill last week to grant more visas to highly skilled immigrants, dozens of experts on immigration were meeting to find ways to bring more skilled workers to the country.

Only a fifth of legal immigrants to the U.S. are highly skilled, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement - a low number compared to other countries –  Daniel J. Tichenor, a professor of political science at the University of Oregon, said. But there is a bipartisan consensus to allow more STEM immigrants, those in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math – whether through temporary visas or green cards, which grant permanent residence in the U.S. and the ability to travel overseas.

“The country benefits from bringing in highly skilled immigrants to add to the country’s brain power, encourage innovation and enhance cultural diversity,” Tichenor said.

Immigrants who have advanced degrees in certain fields can increase the number of jobs for U.S. natives according to a December 2011 student by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

“You’ll hear a lot of comments about what we ought to do is staple a green card to every STEM degree,” Tichenor said.

The House’s solution was a bit more complex. Legislation would provide 55,000 visas to immigrants who hold doctoral degrees in science, technology math or engineering

There is a catch. Those visas would be diverted from the diversity visa program that gives permanent residence to randomly selected applicants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.

Senate Democrats blocked the bill, and the White House released a statement opposing “narrowly tailored proposals that do not meet the President's long-term objectives with respect to comprehensive immigration reform.”

Peter Schuck, an emeritus professor of law at Yale University, said achieving the country’s long-term goals would be more likely if the diversity visa program was ended.  

“It’s a really absurd way to accept immigrants to allocate 50,000 precious visas in a way that does not reflect priorities and needs of our society,” Schuck said at a conference hosted by the Miller Center of Public Affairs, a nonpartisan research institute based at the University of Virginia.

A panel of experts offered a number of policies to increase the number of highly skilled immigrants. The experts generally agreed that the system would be better if there were more data about what employers need. They also agreed that the H1B visa program should be reformed so specialized workers can be promoted or change employers. The H1B program helps employers who can’t find U.S. workers to hire noncitizens who either have specialized experience or a related college degree.

The experts said current immigrants face a long wait for green cards and other visas.

“It’s a 10-year wait for someone with a bachelor’s degree to adjust into permanent residence leaving them in a very, very lonely limbo,” said Susan Martin, executive director for the Institute for Study of International Migration at Georgetown University.

A point-based system, which has been successful in Canada and Australia, was debated at the conference. The system allots points based on factors such as occupation, age and education based on job categories of jobs that are hard to fill.

But Martin said the system doesn’t always work as planned and can lead to higher unemployment.

“A major weakness in point system is people come in with high level of human capital, but they’re not meeting employer and labor market demands,” she said. “What looks good on paper isn’t necessary what an employer is looking for.”

Skilled potential immigrants and those with green cards may be in limbo for a little longer unless Congress can work out a plan suitable to both Republicans and Democrats.

“If it is framed as a choice between highly skilled immigrants and other categories such as family based or diversity, there’s a disagreement about the relative benefits,” Tichenor said. “If instead the question is, ‘Do we expand opportunity for highly skilled immigrants while maintaining our long-term interests in other preferences?’ then there’s little controversy.”

Reach reporter Emily Wilkins at emily.wilkins@shns.com or 202-326-9867. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.

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