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Businesses, families have a lot riding on immigration change

Times Staff Writer

As the U.S. Senate prepares this week to debate the most sweeping proposed change to the nation’s immigration system in more than four decades, Irvine technology executive Bruce Warren and Los Angeles homemaker Monsorat Jaldon symbolize the high stakes looming for millions of families, businesses and workers.

The proposal would shift the way the nation awards green cards from a heavy preference on applicants with family ties -- a system adopted in 1965 -- to those with advanced skills, college degrees and English-speaking ability.

To Warren, that kind of change is urgently needed to keep the nation and high-tech firms like his globally competitive. For three years, he said, his Axiom Microdevices Inc. has unsuccessfully scoured the U.S. labor market for an experienced field engineer with a niche expertise in semiconductors for cell phone systems. The firm finally found a perfect candidate in France -- but can’t bring him here because of limits on skilled-labor visas.

“Bringing the best and the brightest to this country rather than choose those based on blood is the right thing to do,” said Warren, the firm’s chief financial officer. “These people are educated. They’ll pay taxes. They’ll help U.S. high-tech companies compete globally. Let’s bring them here rather than Joe Taxi Driver’s uncle.”

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But Jaldon is appalled at the potential change. A native of the Philippines, her family has greatly benefited from the U.S. immigration system’s priority on family reunification. In turn, she says, her assorted relatives have helped the nation by offering professional expertise in medical technology, chemistry and engineering, by paying taxes and by aiding each other without welfare or other public assistance.

First, Jaldon’s eldest daughter immigrated to the United States as a medical technician more than a decade ago. Then daughter sponsored mother; Jaldon got her green card in just six months. Now Jaldon is petitioning to bring over her 27-year-old son, a film animator, and a 53-year-old daughter, a nurse.

The Senate’s proposed change would disrupt those family chains, however, by severely limiting which relatives could be admitted. Under the proposal, Jaldon’s daughter would no longer be eligible for a family visa because her application was submitted after the cut-off date of May 2005.

“I worry about my children,” Jaldon said. “I want all of them to be here.”

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The proposed shift is included in a massive immigration reform bill unveiled last week by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat, and Jon Kyl, a Republican. It would introduce a point system immediately as a basis for the 140,000 permanent visas awarded annually for workers and, after about eight years, increase that number to 380,000. Point systems are used in countries such as Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.

Under the proposed system, green card applicants could earn a maximum of 100 points. Job qualifications would account for nearly half the points, with the highest numbers assigned for specialty or high-demand occupations such as engineering, as well as smaller credits for technical expertise, a U.S. job offer, U.S. work experience and youth. Educational background could add 28 points, while those who speak fluent English could earn 15.

Family connections could bring 10 more points, but only for applicants with 55 points or higher.

For families, the Senate proposal would eliminate most of the backlog of 4.5 million relatives waiting for green cards over eight years. In a provision that has sparked outcry among immigrant rights groups, however, the bill’s May 2005 cut-off date would leave out 800,000 applicants, according to Karen K. Narasaki, president of the Asian American Justice Center in Washington.

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“These are people who played by the rules and now they’re just going to get left out in the cold,” Narasaki said. “This shows tremendous disrespect to families and family values.”

After the backlog is reduced, family-based visas subject to numerical caps would drop from about 226,000 annually to 127,000. The system would eliminate preferences entirely for adult children and siblings of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.

The proposal would also place a cap of 40,000 on parents of U.S. citizens for the first time. Only spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens would continue to have unlimited access to green cards.

In a statement last week, Kennedy defended the change. The proposal “maintains that more than a majority of future immigration will be based on family ties,” he said.

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Hans Johnson of the Public Policy Institute of California said the proposed shift could help keep the state on the technological cutting edge.

In a study scheduled for release this week, Johnson and others have found that the state’s projected skilled-labor shortage will be so severe in the next several years that even large increases in immigration may not solve it.

“Using a point system that looks at education and skills makes sense in light of the economic demand for high-skilled workers, not just now but also in the future,” Johnson said.

Others add that shifting the nation’s immigration flow from unskilled to skilled workers will benefit U.S. taxpayers. In testimony this month before a House immigration subcommittee, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation in Washington said that households headed by immigrants without high school diplomas, both legal and illegal, cost taxpayers $3 in public services for every $1 in taxes contributed.

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Immigration policy, Rector testified, “should limit immigration to those who will be net fiscal contributors, avoiding those who will increase poverty and impose new costs on overburdened U.S. taxpayers,” he said.

But the proposed change has been blasted by many, including immigration control advocates and immigrant rights groups.

Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington said that bringing in more foreign high-skilled workers was merely a “cheap labor program.” The center plans to release this week a study showing that foreign high-skilled workers earn less than Americans with comparable skills and education.

“We just need less immigration overall,” he said.

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Many immigrant rights groups argue that the Senate proposal undervalues the contributions of lower-skilled migrants and the family webs of emotional and financial support that help so many immigrants prosper. Instead, they assert, visas for both business owners and families should be increased.

“The proposal seems not to value people as human beings, but only how they service and benefit corporations,” said Aquilina Soriano-Versoza, executive director of the Pilipino Workers’ Center in Los Angeles.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups say labor shortages are looming not only for professionals but also for lower-skilled workers in food service, hotel and construction industries -- a shortage they argue will deepen as baby boomers increasingly retire.

“Our concern is that the proposal may tilt too sharply toward the skilled and leave members who need unskilled labor out in the cold,” said Randy Johnson, a chamber vice president. (The proposal would admit hundreds of thousands of low-skilled temporary workers, but would not offer them a path to citizenship.)

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Several immigration experts said Washington should tread more carefully before introducing such major changes in how the nation selects its immigrants. They said a small pilot program should be tried before introducing it wholesale.

“This kind of dramatic shift may be a good idea, but it should be done with much more deliberation and thoughtful consideration than what’s been done so far,” said Ben Johnson, director of the nonpartisan Immigration Policy Center in Washington. “It frightens me to think we are going to make such a major change without having any way to test the system out first.”

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com


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