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Should Reform Be For Immigrants Or the National Interest?

By Peter Brown

The impasse in the Senate over immigration reform generated lots of charges and recriminations, but all sides were reluctant to focus on the most fundamental question about the whole issue:

Should the guiding principle of any legislation be the desire for the most humane policy, in other words one with a bias toward treating immigrants most reasonably? Or, should it be the tilted toward the national interest, that is a proposal perceived to be most beneficial to current U.S. citizens?

Almost every aspect of the current proposal raises that tradeoff. The politically correct answer, of course, is that any reform should have the interests of both at heart.

Yet, that is a cop-out. Each policy choice has profound implications in one of those directions or the other. At times they are mutually exclusive.

No provision of the proposed legislation makes this choice clearer than the one to change the pecking order for legal immigration.

The proposed change would create a point system which would favor potential immigrants with skills, education and experience in vocations where there are shortages of qualified American workers.

Current immigration law gives an edge to those with family members in the United States.

If that current bias remains in place, then Mexican, Central and South American applicants will, in general, be better off. They are more likely to have family members already in the United States.

If the rules are changed to give a preference to those with skills that are in demand, then Asians will disproportionately be the likely major beneficiaries. The data suggest that they are more likely to have the education, experience and English proficiency America needs to compete in a high-tech global economy.

For example, six in 10 Mexican immigrants who came to the United States since 1990 have not graduated from high school, while 76 percent of Indian immigrants have at least one college degree.

Of course these are raw statistics. A change in the formula won't mean all legal immigrants will come from Asia and none from south of our border.

But it would be naive not to understand the implications of this policy choice.

It would be hard to argue that continuing the current system would benefit most U.S. citizens, since the vast majority of them probably don't have family members they want to bring to this country. Changing the rules to provide a boost to better educated and trained immigrants could be another story, since better trained and educated immigrants would likely help improve the U.S. economy overall.

The requirements of the 21st century global economy are forcing Americans to compete with the rising Asian tigers, especially China and India, to protect our standard of living. Given the reality that Asia will be a much greater economic power than Central and South America, having more Asian immigrants with skills would likely be an economic asset for the United States in competing with that part of the world.

Yet those who oppose the change say that helping assure U.S. economic strength should take a back seat to reuniting families, which would be the humane way to handle immigration.

Public opinion on this question, perhaps not surprisingly, seems to be with those wanting to change the status quo, since those surveyed - like those who vote -- are already here and legal. A New York Times poll last month found that 51 percent favored giving preference to those with education and skills, 34 percent to family members.

Undeclared presidential candidate Fred Thompson may have found the politically popular sound bite when he tells audiences that the country is like "our home ... and we get to decide who comes into our home."

Candor requires the acknowledgement that this policy choice involves naked ethnic politics, and with it the inevitable involvement of special-interest groups trying to get the best deal possible for their constituents.

Democrats, the Catholic Church, some unions and Hispanic-dominated immigrant rights groups favor the family-preference policy. Republicans and some business groups favor the skills-based change.

Whether or not Congress can eventually salvage an immigration reform bill is an open question.

However, the next time the measure comes up for debate it might be useful if everyone stops dancing around this basic question and reach a consensus on who any legal change is aimed at helping the most.

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at

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