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New MPI Brief Examines the Significant Ways in Which the Permanent U.S. Legal Immigration System Would Be Reshaped Under the Senate Bill

Press Release
Thursday, June 6, 2013

New MPI Brief Examines the Significant Ways in Which the Permanent U.S. Legal Immigration System Would Be Reshaped Under the Senate Bill

WASHINGTON — A new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analysis issued today finds that the legal immigration system proposed under legislation expected to be debated in the Senate next week would retain a strong emphasis on family unification while growing skills-based immigration more than fourfold, contrary to the perception that a new focus on employment-based immigration would come at the expense of family-based immigration.

The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act (S.744) has provoked concern in some circles because it would abolish a preference category for the siblings of U.S. citizens. Less noticed is that the Senate bill would lift numerical limits and increase the number of permanent visas issued on the basis of nuclear family ties. These changes would enable faster reunification of spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents (LPRs), who currently face waits of approximately two years to get a green card, placing them on the same footing as nuclear families of US citizens.

At the same time, because of even greater growth in labor market immigration streams, family visa categories would make up a smaller share of total permanent immigration. MPI’s calculations suggest that family-based immigration, which represented 66 percent of all green cards in 2012, would likely fall to between 49 - 54 percent in 2018 (when the bill’s new merit-based visa program would take effect). Including the eligible family members of new employment-based green-card holders, however, would raise the share of green cards likely to be based on family ties to 71 percent, compared to 74 percent under the current system.

The new MPI brief, Remaking the U.S. Green Card System: Legal Immigration under the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, examines how the Senate bill would reshape the legal immigration system through its admission policies, creation of a new merit-based visa stream and points-based system, and re-ordering of the balance between permanent and temporary visa programs. It also offers some estimates of future flows, where they can be determined.

“If enacted, the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill would represent the most significant restructuring of the U.S. legal immigration system since 1965,” said MPI Senior Fellow Doris Meissner, who directs the institute’s U.S. Immigration Policy Program. “The legislation would rebalance the system away from temporary and toward more permanent employment-based immigration, provide new pathways for middle- and low-skilled workers to gain work visas, reduce future backlogs and wait times, and add much-needed flexibility.”

Among the brief’s findings:

Total admissions in the employment- and merit-based categories combined could increase almost four- or even fivefold under the Senate legislation, from approximately 140,000 green cards to 554,000-696,000 per year.

  • The large increase in skills-based green cards would likely reduce waiting times for many applicants already in the country on temporary work visas — re-orienting the system away from temporary and toward more permanent employment-based immigration, especially for those applying in newly uncapped, high-skill categories.
  • The Senate bill would dramatically expand options for low- and middle-skilled foreign workers to fill year-round, longer-term jobs and ultimately qualify for permanent residence. Under the current system, low-skilled immigration has been largely limited to temporary and short-term (less than one year) visas.
  • The share of immigrants selected on the basis of their skills would rise from 6 percent of all green cards for principal applicants in 2012 to as much as 19 percent in 2018.
  • While most workers would require a job offer or significant U.S. experience, the legislation would permit PhD holders (in any field) from U.S. or foreign schools to apply for a green card without an offer of employment. The PhD provision has no numerical cap.

Providing reliable estimates of overall future permanent legal flows under the bill is very difficult, in part because several visa categories (such as for U.S. STEM degree holders) would be uncapped. However, based on what can be known, the MPI brief estimates that between 1.5 million to 1.7 million people would gain legal permanent residence in 2018 under the employment, family and humanitarian streams.

“The Senate legislation establishes the foundation for a more flexible, strategic immigration system that learns from its own successes and failures,” said MPI President Demetrios G. Papademetriou. “At the same time, some of its key provisions — for example the new points system — would benefit from greater administrative latitude so they could be adjusted over time as new circumstances develop.”

The report is available here.

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The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. For more on MPI, please visit www.migrationpolicy.org.