By Erica Werner
WASHINGTON: Landmark immigration legislation passed by the Senate would remake America’s workforce from the highest rungs to the lowest and bring many more immigrants into the economy, from elite technology companies to restaurant kitchens and rural fields.
In place of the unauthorized workers now commonly found laboring in lower-skilled jobs in the agriculture or service industries, many of these workers would be legal, some of them permanent-resident green card holders or even citizens.
Illegal immigration across the border with Mexico would slow, but legal immigration would increase markedly.
That’s the portrait that emerges from recent analyses of the far-reaching bill passed last month by the Senate with the backing of the White House. Although the bill aims to secure the borders, track people overstaying their visas and deny employers the ability to hire workers here illegally, it by no means seeks to choke off immigration. Indeed, the U.S. population over the next two decades would be likely to increase by 15 million people above the probable level if no changes were made to immigration laws, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Even after decades of growth in the U.S. foreign-born population, the added increase could be felt in ways large and small around the country, from big cities that would absorb even more diversity to small towns that may still be adjusting to current immigrant arrivals.
“That is baked into the basic premise of the bill,” said Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, “which is that you need to provide legal avenues for people to come to the country both in longer-term temporary and in permanent visa categories in order to meet the needs of the future and avert the incentives for illegal immigration.”
The level of immigration under the legislation has been a political issue in the debate and will probably continue to be disputed in the weeks ahead.
The House timetable is unclear, with majority Republicans scheduled to hold a closed-door meeting on Wednesday to plan their next steps.
Senate Majority leader Harry Reid urged Speaker John Boehner on Monday to allow a vote on the Senate-passed measure, but that is unlikely, at least in the short run. Boehner, R-West Chester, has said previously he will only place legislation on the floor that has the support of at least half of his party’s rank and file, a formula that so far, appears to rule out the path to citizenship that is at the core of the Senate-passed measure.
The Senate bill’s treatment of immigrants already in the U.S. illegally is distinct from the system it would create for legal immigration.
Working out a comprehensive GOP House response could be complex because the Senate version itself is complicated. It would expand various temporary and permanent visa categories, shut down others and create still other new ones. Some visa programs would be capped and some wouldn’t. Some would expand or contract in response to demand.
Opponents led by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., have forecast dramatic increases in immigration under the bill, with Sessions warning that 57 million new permanent and temporary residents and newly legalized immigrants would flood the U.S. within the decade and rob Americans of jobs. On the other side, supporters have downplayed the impact of the bill. The office of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., argues that the Senate bill “does not significantly increase long-term, annual migration to the United States.”
Under current law, around 1 million people get green cards granting permanent U.S. residence each year. That would rise to between 1.5 million to 1.7 million annually under the Senate bill within about five years of enactment, the Migration Policy Institute estimates.
But those figures don’t count people coming to the U.S. under temporary worker visas, and their numbers could rise by hundreds of thousands a year under the Senate bill, according to the Institute. This includes more than twice as many visas for high-skilled workers, a new visa category for lower-skilled workers that could go up to 220,000 a year, and more visas for agricultural workers. Some of these workers would be able to transition to permanent status and eventually citizenship.
On the other side, the flow of illegal immigration into the country would decrease by one-third or one-half compared with current law, the Congressional Budget Office says.
The Senate bill offers a 13-year path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants already here illegally, the most contentious element of the legislation since many House conservatives oppose granting citizenship to people who broke U.S. laws to be here.
Beyond the changes in numbers, the bill would shift the emphasis of U.S. immigration policy away from family ties and put more weight on employment prospects, education and relative youth.