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Immigration reform dilemma: Cut family visas to woo computer engineers?

Congress is closing in on immigration reforms that favor more immigrants with math and science backgrounds, but lawmakers are divided over whether to favor job skills over family ties.

If the House and Senate reach a compromise immigration reform accord, one thing is nearly certain: The proportion of immigrants who are given legal status in the United States because of family connections will be lower, while those allowed in for employment reasons will be higher.

Lawmakers of both parties have made it clear that they want to make it easier for graduates of advanced science, technology, engineering, and math programs to stay in the US and for a range of foreign workers – from farm workers to computer scientists – to come here. Moreover, a new guest-worker program with a potential pathway to citizenship will add hundreds of thousands of possible US citizens during the next decade.

But what the parties still have to resolve is whether those work-based visas should come at the expense of some family-based immigration slots.

The question is perhaps simpler for Democrats, who are generally more open to expanding the number of legal immigrants allowed into the country beyond its current level of 1 million. Republicans, meanwhile, are caught between their desire to boost employment-based visas for their backers in corporate America and their family-values platform. While some Republicans have indicated a willingness to let immigration levels tick up slightly, others within the party are advocating  holding the line or even decreasing the number of immigrants admitted.

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How lawmakers ultimately strike this balance will be a central theme in ongoing immigration reform negotiations.

“We want more immigrants, and there should be two bases on which those immigrants come. One is family, which I believe is the cornerstone of any good immigration system, and the second one is what are the needs of the economy,” says Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, a leading House negotiator on immigration reform, at a Monitor Breakfast on Tuesday. “And we’re going to have to figure that out.”

Democrats say family strength and US competitiveness can be addressed together.

“As we consider comprehensive reform, we must not pit visas for family-based immigrants against those sponsored by employers,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at a hearing on family reunification Tuesday.

For their part, many Republicans suggest there isn’t a hard cap on legal migration. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R) of Virginia has said there is no “magic number,” and Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky called for greater legal immigration in a speech before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.

But comments by Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California show that some Republicans are wary about allowing immigration levels to increase significantly. Since the US authorizes more new permanent residents “than the entire rest of the world combined, we could say that we’re already in the nature of ‘a lot,’ ” he told the Monitor shortly after the November elections.

One area where there is bipartisan agreement is on the issue of spouses and children. Lawmakers in both parties are eager to reunite these family members as quickly as possible.

“The family is the essential unit of society, and keeping nuclear families together should be an important goal of our immigration laws,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina, the chairman of the House immigration subcommittee, before a recent hearing on family reunification. “But right now, our system forces many legal permanent residents to wait years to be reunited with their spouses and children. These waits can be painfully long, and we should consider how our laws can better limit nuclear family separations.”

The thornier questions surround how to handle family-based visa applications for parents and siblings. As lawmakers seek to boost green cards for skills-based migrants, some are looking there as a potential offset.

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Currently, skilled migrants make up 7 percent of America’s total green card stream; in countries such as Canada and Australia, they make up more than half of all new nationals.

“When you talk about legal immigration reform, you should focus on that,” Representative Goodlatte said in a recent interview with the Monitor.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) wrote in his recent book “Immigration Wars,” that “if we want to increase the number of work-based immigrants without substantially increasing the overall number of immigrants, we must reduce family-based immigration.”

Mr. Bush’s proposal would allow for spouses and minor children of US citizens and lawful permanent residents to be guaranteed green cards while grandfathering in relatives who have already applied for family reunification at the time the new policy is implemented. But his proposal would also cut green cards for parents or siblings of American immigrants, both of which currently receive immigration preference.

Congressional Republicans including Goodlatte and Rep. Raul Labrador (R) of Idaho, a former immigration lawyer, have signaled their interest in ending the sibling preference but not the one for parents.

But the issue is a potential political minefield.

Representative Labrador was asked at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week whether he was in favor of shifting America’s immigration system toward one that fundamentally emphasizes employment interests. He said “no.”

“I don’t think we need to de-emphasize the family reunification [categories] like children and spouses,” said Labrador, a key negotiator in a bipartisan House group working on an immigration reform proposal, “but I do think we need to emphasize our needs in the market.”

Liberal-leaning activists jealously guard family immigration categories as an affirmation of America’s fulfillment of the pledge emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty (“Bring us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free…”) and as a statement that immigrants without PhDs add value to American society, to.

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“We think that family [immigration] compliments business and makes America more attractive to people who want to come here through our employment-based system,” says Erin Oshiro, a senior attorney at the Asian American Justice Center. “We shouldn’t be pitting one against the other.”

Adds Kevin Appleby, director of the office of migration at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops: “Immigrant families stay together and support each other. They may not have PhDs all the time… [but] keeping families together keeps society strong. If we totally switch to a business-based system, we may have a lot of smart people running around, but we won’t have the communities we have now.”

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops urges that any changes to some family-based immigration categories be reallocated to other forms of family-based immigration to reduce backlogs that can stretch for years.

“We’re not saying that we’re against business visas,” says Mr. Appleby,. “Our question is: Why does it have to come at the expense of the family system? We think the family system is broken and they can fix it, make it more expeditious – it does need to function more properly. We think all the categories should be preserved.”