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Point system at center of immigration-overhaul talks
San Francisco Chronicle


May 16, 2007

WASHINGTON -- A Canadian-style point system at the center of a controversial new immigration overhaul could transform the ethnic and social composition of the United States in decades to come, but such a change hinges on the details expected to emerge this week from closed-door negotiations between the White House and key senators in both parties.

In concept, a point system that awards visas on the basis of such factors as education, age, job skills and English proficiency could mark a radical change from the current system that awards the vast majority of the 1 million legal-permanent-residence visas, or green cards, on the basis of a foreigner's family ties to relatives already in the United States.

Depending on how a point system is constructed, a Ghanaian physician fluent in English could get priority to enter the country, for example, over a Spanish-speaking hotel maid from Guatemala whose brother is a U.S. citizen.

That kinship-based system, in place since 1965, has encouraged large immigrant flows from Latin America and Asia, although that was not the original intention. Such "chain migration" poses a major stumbling block to efforts to legalize the estimated 12 million people now in the country illegally. Critics say such legalization efforts would encourage these new residents to bring their relatives, leading to millions more immigrants based not on skills but on family ties.

Immigrant-rights groups, which are often organized on ethnic lines, are adamant that some form of family ties remain central to U.S. immigration policy.

Cecilia Munoz, vice president at the National Council of La Raza, a Latino immigrant lobbying group, called the point system a radical experiment.

Munoz said a point system that "would be open to anyone in the world, create a potentially huge demand and is very much skewed toward highly educated, English-speaking people, has implications not only for the immigration system, but I think broader implications for class and arguably race."

Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant lobby, said he is open to a point system depending on how it is structured.

"This point system is very critical," Sharry said. "Who will benefit, how the points will be apportioned, whether there's equity between high and low skill, whether it favors people here, or unknown, disconnected folks from around the world, and whether family is going to count enough are just some of the issues that are really going to be make-or-break for us when we finally see what's on the table."

As controversial as such an overhaul might be, political pressure on all sides has intensified to fix what everyone calls a broken immigration system. Last year's immigration bill met a dead end and seemed set to do so again this year without concessions on family migration.

The big trade-off for immigrants here now could be legalization of the estimated 12 million current illegal residents, in return for changing the future legal immigration system to attract more highly skilled and educated people.

The Senate is scheduled to start debate Wednesday on an immigration overhaul. Sources close to the talks said that while they may yet collapse, negotiators are nearing a deal on a hybrid of the family- and skills-based system that would award points for skills, age, education and family ties.

The effect such a system would have on who gets one of the world's most coveted prizes -- a U.S. green card -- depends on the weight given to each category.

Point systems were first devised in Canada in the 1980s and copied by Australia, New Zealand and, in 2003, by the United Kingdom -- an often-overlooked innovation by Prime Minister Tony Blair. They are geared to attracting people who have attributes valued by the receiving nation, and that are judged to make the immigrant more likely to succeed economically. These include education, occupation, work experience, language and age.


E-mail Carolyn Lochhead at
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