Monday, September 17, 2012

Should high-skilled immigrants get special treatment?

Some in Congress want to give special visas to foreign-born graduates of American universities with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math. But critics say it could come at the expense of diversity in legal immigration

Tucked into Congress’s scramble to get back on the campaign trail is an interesting debate about America’s immigration priorities. It’s in the form of a GOP-sponsored bill that would offer high-skilled advanced graduates of American universities a special visa option at the expense of the green card “lottery” system that aims to diversify the immigrant population to the US.

House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R) of Texas unveiled a bill Friday that would grant 55,000 visas a year to foreign-born graduates of American universities with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

“These students have the ability to start a company that creates jobs or come up with an invention that could jump-start a whole new industry,” said Rep. Smith, a frequent critic of the administration’s immigration policy, in a statement. “In a global economy, we cannot afford to educate these foreign graduates in the U.S. and then send them back home to work for our competitors.”

The bill prioritizes PhD recipients who will work in the US for five years and who come from 217 universities that are qualified as top research institutions by the Carnegie Foundation. The bill attempts to protect US workers from foreign competition by excluding biological and biomedical advanced graduates from the program and requiring companies that want to hire applicants for the special visa to post the job on the site of state workforce agencies.

The provocative question is not whether the US should have more STEM immigrants. From 165 university presidents who sent a letter to President Obama and congressional leaders arguing for STEM visas to bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for similar STEM-boosting legislation in the past to polls showing three in four Americans (including six in ten conservatives) support such measures, support for more STEM immigration is widespread.

The thorny issue is that public support for more STEM visas has not been previously linked to reducing another form of immigration; can Congress and the President stomach more STEM visas if they come at the expense of the diversity green card program?

“I would like to improve the STEM visa program without doing damage to other parts of our legal immigration system,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois in a statement. “The President has made this a priority and I am prepared to support a clean STEM increase because it will help our economy and create jobs. Republicans are only willing to increase legal immigration for immigrants they want by eliminating legal immigration for immigrants they don't want.”

The value of the visa program Smith’s bill would eliminate is a broadening and deepening of the foreign-born that America makes its own. The diversity program, although only about 5 percent of the US’s typical total annual immigration, specifically targets nations that have had low rates of immigration to the US in the previous five years – Bangladesh and Poland, for example.

“The beauty of our immigration system is that it allows for diverse streams of people, family unification, low wage, high wage, refugee,” says Muzzafar Chisti, the director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at the New York University law school. “The diversity visas had provided another stream of balancing the ethnic and racial composition of our immigration stream and that itself is a value.”

Why might diversity visas be on the chopping block? Chisti says there is no strong, single group advocating for their continuance – while many groups are loaded up on the side of STEM grads.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D) of California, the ranking member of the House Immigration Policy and Enforcement subcommittee, proposed competing legislation Friday that offers the same number of STEM visas without cutting back on other visa programs. Representative Lofgren’s bill would sunset the new visas after two years to force Congress to reexamine how effective the program had been.

Smith’s bill, however, is the only one with a slot on the House floor. It will be offered under special voting procedures this coming Wednesday that require a two-thirds majority of the House to pass. The bill faces an uncertain path in the Senate, although members in that chamber have supported similar legislation in the past.

"There should be bipartisan support for efforts to retain the world's best and brightest after they've received STEM training at American universities. It makes no sense that we require these graduates to return home so they can compete against us,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia, an advocate for previous measures like the JOBS Act 2.0 that created a special visa for STEM graduates, in a statement.

"I am hopeful this commonsense proposal – which could do so much to promote U.S. innovation and competitiveness – receives quick action by Congress,” he said.

However, the Senate is likely to join the House in leaving Washington after next week. Any negotiations over differences in bills passed between the two houses, then, would have to be resolved either in two short days as lawmakers skedaddle from D.C. or in a lame duck session after the election.


Boat-borne Hispanic illegals

The Pacific Ocean is the latest frontier in human smuggling, shifting the battle over illegal immigration to California's coast.

As the federal government tightens patrol of land routes once popular with immigrants sneaking from Mexico into California and Arizona, the sea has become the latest method for people trying to cross illegally into the United States from Mexico. Apprehensions along California's coastline have nearly tripled since officials first tracked the phenomenon in 2008.

Orange County Register reporter Cindy Carcamo traveled to Mexico and Guatemala, asking people who have become part of the sometimes deadly phenomenon how and why they do it or, in some cases, why their loved ones were willing to risk their lives.

The project was sponsored by an International Reporting Fellowship administered by The International Center for Journalists and funded by the Ford Foundation.

In recent years, the United States has tightened land routes long used by people trying to get into California and Arizona illegally from Mexico. Patrols increased. Fencing expanded. As a result, fewer have made successful trips by land from Mexico into the U.S.

But as land routes have tightened, the unexpected result has been a spike of illegal immigration by sea.

These sea journeys, starting in Baja and ending somewhere on the Southern California coast, generally cost more than land crossings. People pay up to $9,000 to make the trips. The voyages are fraught with danger, with people crammed into tiny boats designed for day fishing trips. Life jackets are rare. Communication is scarce. Night landings are typical.

While land travel still accounts for the majority of illegal immigration from Mexico, apprehensions along the Pacific Ocean have tripled since 2008 along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to federal estimates.

Apprehensions along the California coastline are on pace to break records.

In the first 10 months of this fiscal year – starting in October – U.S. immigration agents picked up 558 people in connection with 156 smuggling incidents along the coastline from San Diego to San Luis Obispo counties, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement data. The numbers include drug and human smuggling.

It's unclear how many boats go undetected. Some make it to California beaches. Others may disappear in the ocean. What's known is that enough boats reach their target to make it lucrative for smugglers, said Mike Carney, acting special agent in charge of the ICE Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego.

Carney said immigration agents noticed an upturn in sea smuggling soon after President George W. Bush signed the 2006 Secure Fence Act. In the first years after that, immigration enforcement agents saw boats and other watercraft on the shores of San Diego. Some were found empty. In a handful of cases, officials caught people trying to swim from Mexico to San Diego.

As crews raised more fences – some 600 miles added from California to Texas by the end of fiscal 2009 – the ocean became a more popular smuggling route. Smugglers took greater risks and formed new alliances with drug cartels.

In San Diego, ICE officials threw resources and agents at the problem, Carney said.

In response, smugglers pushed farther north. In 2010, at San Onofre State Beach, Dana Point and San Clemente, agents apprehended 63 people on seven incursions. Last year, the number of people detained in sea smuggling events in Orange County nearly doubled, to 119.

Smugglers continue to readjust their routes – taking boats out behind the Mexican Coronado Islands and into international waters before making a beeline north of San Diego – as far as San Luis Obispo County.

The shift in tactics has led to the creation of a regional anti-smuggling maritime task force that would reach all of Southern California.


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