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What Visa Changes Say About U.S. Immigration Priorities

May 5, 2013
Originally published on May 5, 2013 6:03 am
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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

The U.S. Senate is poised to weigh in on a bipartisan bill that would overhaul this country's immigration system. The bill calls for more border security and a pathway to citizenship for the country's undocumented immigrants. But there are some easy to overlook changes in the bill that would affect the lives of would-be American immigrants, people like this.

DR. BIBHRAJIT HALDER: My name is Bibhrajit Halder. I did some mechanical engineering back in India. I grew up in Calcutta.

MARTIN: Bibhrajit Halder came to the United States in 2000 to get a master's in engineering. Then he got another in mathematics. Then he got a Ph.D. Pretty soon he got a job building robots in the U.S. He wants to create a startup of his own here at last year because the line to get a green card is so long, Halder's application didn't get submitted in time. He almost had to go home and his long-term status in the U.S. is still up in the air.

HALDER: You already, you know, accumulated about six or seven years of education, another six years of work, you made a plan here. And this is not part of your plan. This was kind of shoved into you and not what you decided you wanted to do.

MARTIN: If the Senate bill passes, someone like Halder would have a leg up in the immigration process because it introduces something called a merit-based visa. The government would give out up to 250,000 of these new visas each year on a point system. The more points you have, the better your chances.

Bibhrajit Halder got his higher degrees in the United States. He also has a job here and that is worth a lot of points. But in exchange the same Senate bill would do away with a different type of visa. It's called the Diversity Visa and it was introduced in 1990. Essentially it's a Green Card lottery for countries with historically low rates of immigration to this country. Fifty thousand visas are given out every year. All you need is a high school diploma and a couple of years of job training.

STANLEY IMBALI: My name is Stanley Imbali(ph). I was born in western Kenya.

MARTIN: Imbali came to the U.S. from Kenya on the Diversity Visa in 2007. At the time, Kenya was embroiled in political chaos that led to all kinds of violence. Imbali's bakery was robbed. He was afraid for his family's safety. He wanted out. On a hope and a prayer, he applied for a Diversity Visa to the U.S. and he won. Now, Stanley Imbali and his family live in a small city in central California.

He's become a nursing assistant and his oldest son is finishing up his first year at UC Davis.

So are you feeling pretty positive when you look back on your decision to come to the United States? Are you...

IMBALI: Oh sure, I do. I do. I'm very happy and I know nothing comes easier. You know, when people hear about United States, they just think you can just sweep the street and get the money. You know?


IMBALI: So they don't know. But, you know, you have to work for it. I understand that, but I'm happy.

MICHAEL FIX: I think there are fewer pathways in for someone like that in Kenya.

MARTIN: This is Michael Fix. He is the senior vice president of the Migration Policy Institute. We asked him in to explain what these proposed changes to the country's immigration policy would represent.

FIX: On the face of it, with nothing else, it is a modest shift away from pluralism towards market-based rationales for admitting immigrants to the United States. How it will play out in the long run is really not clear. And it could be the case that there are ways to shape a merit-based program so it responds more to a diversity rationale, and so that it admits more immigrants from these historic underserved ascending countries like the African countries.

One example - perhaps the best, easiest example - it's that you could weigh speaking English much more heavily in the point system, because 70 percent of African immigrants to the United States are fluent in English. Another thing you could do is you could weight the high levels of education, a master's or Ph.D., because such a large share of African immigrants have high levels of education. In fact, they're one of our highest educated flows to the United States, falling just below Asian immigrants.

MARTIN: Why has this been something that people have been talking about for so long, but never actually happens?

FIX: I think it's a three-level critique. First, that economic needs can be more efficiently met by selecting workers. Second, the program has essentially run its course; we've ceded migration enough from all these places. And third, there're opportunity costs to setting aside 50,000 visas for a lottery, when you could be using it to reduce backlogs and the like. I don't find all of them enormously convincing but those are the arguments that are out there. And they've been out there and in place for a decade now.

MARTIN: Not to get too big, meta and philosophical about it, but immigration policy, I would venture to say it is more - says something more significant about the United States than perhaps other countries. Why is immigration policy and getting it right, why is that important to this country?

FIX: Someone once said to me that immigration policy is the DNA of public policy. It's the public policy that sets the country that we will become, not just the country that we are. In that way, it really is a complete expression of our economic, social, political priorities.

MARTIN: Michael Fix, he's the senior vice president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. Mr. Fix, thanks so much for taking the time.

FIX: Oh, my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.