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June 30 2012

Would Grandma Make the Cut?

The following appeared in the June 7, 2007 edition of The Wall Street Journal:


Actor Michael J. Fox, the late news anchor Peter Jennings and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are all immigrants. They each came here long ago and found a path to a successful career. But could they have come here under the “point system” now being considered by the Senate as part of an immigration overhaul? Let’s see.

The proposed point system has a possible score of 100 in four categories: employment, education, English/civics and family ties. Applicants can earn a maximum of 47 points for employment, 28 for education, and 15 for English. When scoring more than 55 points in these three categories combined, applicants may qualify for 10 bonus points for having close relatives in the U.S.

Incredibly, the proposed statute does not indicate how many points a person needs to immigrate. There is no minimum, no cutoff. The choice of who can come in and who is shut out is left to the discretion of the Department of Homeland Security.

So how would our famous immigrants fare under the proposed system? Mr. Fox was born in Canada and came to the U.S. at age 18. He gets no points for education (he’s a high school dropout) or age. He also gets zero points for employment because acting is not a specialty occupation, nor is it a high-demand field (just ask anyone in L.A.), and doesn’t require a college degree. Add a few points for speaking English, having an employer and maybe even some work experience under a temporary work visa, and his score still tops out at 37. Enough to stay? Not likely.

Jennings, who died in August 2005, was also from Canada. He had no college degree (another dropout), but could get 20 points for being a journalist, a “specialty field.” Jennings picks up 15 points for English and six for having an employer, plus three for being between 25 and 39. Jennings’ total? A paltry 44 points, probably not enough to become a major network news anchor.

Mr. Schwarzenegger came to the U.S. from Austria at age 21 in 1968. He had limited English and earned his degree from the University of Wisconsin more than a decade after arriving. If the point system had been in place for him, his total would have been negligible. He sold exercise tapes and worked in real estate before becoming Mr. Universe and a superstar — none of these jobs are specialty or high-demand occupations. He could get two points per year for U.S. work experience with a maximum of 10. Let’s award him the limit for five years of work here. Assume he had learned English by that time (15 points) and was over age 25, for three more. He gets six points for his Austrian high school education and six more for having a sponsor. That’s a meager 40 points, enough to terminate his chances.

Now let’s compare a fictional Miguel Gonzales, age 35, from Mexico. He is a skilled horse groomer, working legally most of the past five years with a temporary H2B visa for a stable trying to win an equestrian Olympic medal. He earns 10 points for his employment in the U.S. and 16 more because he holds a high-demand job, as few Americans will do this work. His high school diploma gives him six points, his U.S. employer will gladly sponsor him, giving him six more points, plus three for his age and 15 for his English skills. And, I almost forgot, his brother is a U.S. citizen, four points, who filed immigration papers for him a few years ago (two points). Mr. Gonzales collects an impressive 62 points.

While Messrs. Schwarzenegger, Fox and Jennings would most likely not make the cut, Mr. Gonzales has a good chance to stay. Highly educated technology workers would also fare better than the California governor: With college degrees, job offers and a good command of the English language, they can easily score 78 points.

Whoever dreamed up this plan has no understanding of the needs of our economy or how our current system operates, and apparently little understanding of how the new one will function. Under current law the Foxes, Jennings and Schwarzeneggers would be able to immigrate with a visa for those with “extraordinary ability.” The new system would do away with this visa category, making it likely that such people will find the doors closed.

Our current employment-based immigration system is not broken. It actually works pretty well by requiring employers to prove worker shortages or the foreign national to prove extraordinary ability. What we’re lacking is sufficient visa numbers.

Immigration is all about nation building, our nation. Before the system is changed radically, we need Congressional hearings to look in detail at how the proposed rules will work and who will be able to satisfy the criteria and who will not. We’ll want to know if the new system will allow for the immigration not just of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and cancer researchers, but actors, news anchors, and possibly even a few governors.