Sunday, October 21, 2012

U.S. immigration choice: Education vs. diversity, or both?

People around the world with accredited degrees in science and math should "get a green card stapled to their diploma," Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in his Tuesday night debate with President Barack Obama, who has made similar appeals to retain skilled foreign students.

Stewed over by lawmakers since 2009, the visa-stapled degree is a bipartisan idea that Congress has been unable to achieve. Election-year politicking brought a rare opening but then quickly shut the door to compromise this fall -- specifically, whether to create more opportunities for highly educated scientists and engineers to stay in the United States at the expense of shutting down a random lottery of visas.

"Do we want to have 6,000 Iranians coming here or do we want 6,000 scientists and researchers?" U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Coronado, asked on the House of Representatives floor. "Do we want over 2,000 Moroccans (or) individuals who have proved they have an asset?"

In other words, congressional Republicans said, the United States can award special green cards for permanent residency to foreign scientists and engineers or it can give out the visas in a random global lottery, but it cannot do both.

They sought to replace the "diversity visa lottery" with 55,000 visas annually granting permanent residency to immigrants with advanced U.S. degrees in science, technology, engineering or math, called the STEM fields. Most Democrats reject that choice, arguing that America has room for both visa programs. Neither Romney nor Obama has weighed in on the lottery side of the debate.
The House debate collapsed in late September in a hail of carefully calibrated finger-pointing but left open an important question: Should the country retain the most highly educated migrants by sacrificing a lottery that over the past 17 years has opened the door to thousands of people? Or do both?

Everyone expects the issue to return once the political season cools off.

"We should keep the great students already studying at Stanford and Berkeley and not worry about bringing in people who may or may not contribute to U.S. competitiveness," said author Vivek Wadhwa, who has warned of a Silicon Valley "immigrant exodus" of talented entrepreneurs.

Attaching visas to doctorates and master's degrees has bipartisan appeal and a strong constituency in Silicon Valley, but the diversity lottery has its defenders: people like Michael Shklovsky, whose Israeli florist parents got a break with the visa lottery that changed their family's trajectory.

"They weren't major professors or highly accomplished scientists," said Shklovsky, 33, a civil trial attorney who lives in El Cerrito. "There was really no way for us to come in other than through a lottery."

The diversity allocation was originally designed to help Europeans choked off in the 1980s by immigration policy favoring immediate kin of people already here. Today, nearly half who win the visas are from Africa. Defenders say the lottery is still the only legal immigration chance for the kind of plucky workers who historically defined American immigration.

Shklovsky was 16 when his parents won the visa, sold their Tel Aviv flower shop and moved the family to Contra Costa County in the mid-1990s. His father recently retired as a Martinez mechanic, his mother is a Montessori school head teacher and his brother is an assistant bank manager. "I'm really happy I'm here. I'm happy we left," he said.

About 50,000 people win the lottery each year, a small slice of the approximately 1 million who come in, mostly through family ties or work sponsorships.

Lottery eligibility requires little more than a high school degree, and only those from countries with low rates of U.S. immigration can apply.

On the other side of the debate is Marcos Hung, 24, born in Argentina to Taiwanese immigrants and now working at Stanford Hospital on a soon-to-expire student visa. He applied for a diversity visa, but lost out -- the chances of winning are about 1 in a 100.

"That's why they call it a lottery," said Hung, a bioengineer who already has his name on two patents.

His chances of winning a so-called STEM visa would be closer to 100 percent -- he has a master's in bioengineering from Rice University in Texas. Without it, he will likely go the more traditional Silicon Valley route -- hoping an employer will sponsor him for a temporary H-1B visa, and eventually being sponsored for permanent residency -- which can take many years and cost a small fortune in legal fees.

Republican and Democratic legislators say they want to make it easier for people like Hung to get green cards, but they disagree on how to do it.

A longtime diversity visa opponent, House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, sought to add the doctorate visas by killing the lottery. U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, the minority leader of the immigration subcommittee, wanted to add the STEM visas and keep the lottery.

On the House floor, Lofgren described the Smith version as a "sinister" ruse to cut immigration while showing a pro-immigration GOP face before the presidential election.

Even some immigrant advocates who once endorsed the lottery argue that it has done its work by welcoming more than 800,000 people since 1995.

Thirty Democrats joined Republicans voting for Smith's version, including Bay Area Reps. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, and Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton.

Garamendi said in an interview that he prefers to keep diversity visas -- "it's a value statement about who we are as Americans," he said -- but felt a need to compromise.

However, he said the Republicans set up the vote to fail by requiring two-thirds support instead of a simple majority. The tally fell 20 votes short, 257 to 158.

"That's the game," Garamendi said. "It's sad, but that's what most of this year's votes were about."

Other advocates for high-skill immigration say more Democrats should reconsider the "all-or-nothing" approach.

"Having diversity is important," Wadhwa said, "but I don't think anyone would say that America lacks diversity."


Deportation waiver process becomes campaign issue

As the federal government continues issuing its first round of deportation waivers to certain unauthorized immigrants, supporters and critics of the much-debated program are weighing presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s pledge to halt the program if he wins office.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program grants a two-year reprieve from deportation to eligible applicants, with possible renewal, and allows them to seek a job permit. People must be 18 to 30 years old and have arrived in the U.S. before they turned 16. They also must have graduated from high school or college, have no criminal record and meet other criteria.

An estimated 1.3 million individuals nationwide could qualify, including more than 400,000 in California — the highest count of any state.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it had received nearly 180,000 applications and approved 4,591 as of Oct. 10, the most recent tally available. The agency does not provide regional breakdowns, but several immigration lawyers in San Diego County said some clients have gotten their exemptions.

In recent days, Romney has said that as president he would cancel Deferred Action but honor work permits already granted by the Obama administration. Some Republicans back his proposal, others want him to continue the program amid a Congress deadlocked on immigration issues and still others urge him to not only end the program but also rescind all approvals.

Deferred Action “is still a bad idea,” said Peter Nunez of San Diego, a former U.S. attorney here and a vocal opponent of allowing any residency reprieve for people who are in the United States without permission. “Nothing that Obama or (Gov. Jerry) Brown have done changes the reality that they are rewarding illegal immigration, the worst part of which is that it encourages more illegal immigration.”

Last month, Brown signed legislation allowing those who receive Deferred Action waivers to obtain driver’s licenses in the state.

In downtown San Diego, immigration attorney Lilia Velasquez said she has filed about 90 Deferred Action applications and that a handful have been approved.

She and some other lawyers are encouraging people who seem to meet all the requirements and want to apply to do so as soon as possible.

“Students who have clean cases should not wait until the end of the year, just in case Romney is elected,” Velasquez said.

Pedro Rios of the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego said the group’s staff is contacting people on a waiting list from its August workshop session about Deferred Action — to see how many of them still need help.

The nonprofit organization is stopping short of advising potential applicants to file sooner or later.

“If there is significant concern, then perhaps it might be best to wait,” Rios said. “I think they have to be as well informed as they can be and decide for themselves if it makes sense.”

President Barack Obama announced the Deferred Action program in June, and the application period began in mid-August. The evaluation time is running one to two months, but immigration experts and federal officials expect the process to take longer once more applications are filed.


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