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San Jose Mercury News: Aspiring Immigrants Would be Ranked Under U.S. Senate Points Plan

Posted July 13, 2013 by the San Jose Mercury News.

By Matt O’Brien

For decades, America judged most aspiring immigrants by who they knew, not what they knew. Family ties meant more than work experience or advanced degrees.

But in the future, a new scorecard favoring workers whose résumés best fit the country’s priorities could radically change who is able to settle in the United States. The U.S. Senate’s immigration bill creates a ranking system that, beginning in 2018, would weigh many prospective immigrants on a 100-point scale measuring work experience, English fluency, education and other factors.

Those who score highest — up to 250,000 people each year, split between white-collar and blue-collar workers — would win a green card, giving them permanent U.S. residency.

Months of hearings dominated by lawmakers’ more pressing debate over illegal immigration and border security obscured the “merit-based” system — described in just 17 pages of the 1,197-page measure, which passed last month in a historic vote and now awaits a more contentious debate in the House of Representatives.

If it survives the House’s scrutiny, experts say the bill’s points system and other provisions favoring job skills could, in ways hard to predict, be the most dramatic reshaping and expansion of legal immigration in generations. To help understand how it would work, the Bay Area News Group invited several foreigners living in the region, and hoping to stay, to see how they would score if such a system were in use now.

How we ranked immigrants

A Transylvanian tech entrepreneur, a former Swedish Olympian and a Nepali gas station attendant were among those who volunteered to rank themselves using the description in the Senate bill.

None came near the maximum 100 points for high-skilled workers — a score requiring a nearly impossible combination of accomplishments: founding a business, earning a doctorate and having seven years of full-time U.S. work experience in a high-skill field by age 25. Workers whose jobs do not require college preparation would be measured differently on an 85-point scale.

Some who graded themselves were pleased with how it worked. Others were disappointed. Several said the points inadequately measured their life experience, contributions and promise.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would judge a few subjective categories — such as an “exceptional” work record. One thing became clear: The green cards are open to anyone in the world, but roughly half the points can only be accumulated through U.S. work experience.

“In my view that’s a good thing,” said Madeleine Sumption, an analyst at the independent Migration Policy Institute. “That weighting on jobs skills is more likely to admit people who will actually find work here.”

That means the system favors anyone who can first establish a temporary but legal foothold here, such as tech workers gaining Silicon Valley job experience on an H-1B visa, or lower-skilled workers — from Mendocino County loggers to Tahoe resort crews — invited by employers as guest workers. Because the Senate bill also welcomes tens of thousands more of those guest workers, many of those likely to rank highest on the blue-collar points scale are not yet living here. Here is how four Bay Area volunteers fared in the 100-point scale for professional workers:

Eric La Fleur, Sweden, graphic designer

Points: 44

In his favor: Highlights include six years working as a graphic designer (12 of 20 possible points); English fluency (perfect 10 points) and being from Sweden (5 of 5 points) because it sends so few immigrants here; he would bump up to a more competitive 54 points when his brother, a permanent resident through marriage, becomes a citizen. Points against him: Not having an advanced degree, not owning his own business or working in the top five highest-demand occupations.

His story: Swimming 100 meters in just over 49 seconds made La Fleur a world-class freestyle swimmer. Sweden sent him to Athens to compete in the 2004 Olympic Games. But athletic feats give no advantage in the worldwide race for a green card.

Now a 33-year-old graphic designer with a San Francisco ad firm, La Fleur’s U.S. stay is coming to an end after 13 years, his entire adult life, first as a college student and later on a temporary H-1B work visa.

“I’m in the middle of looking for a job in Europe,” he said. “I have to leave. I’m out of here in two months.”

He would rather stay, because his parents and brother now live in the United States, but he has few options.

With just 44 points out of the 100 possible for professional workers, La Fleur would have little to show against those with higher degrees and higher-demand jobs. Still, he thinks assigning points is better than today’s system.

“It’s anchored a little bit more to reality, and how tied you are to the country and how much you could contribute if you wanted to,” he said.

If only, he said, the Senate’s classification system had “even more nuance, more details in what you could score points on.”

Karin Puertas, Panama, and Marcos Mardero, Mexico; engineering students

Points: 28 for Puertas; 44 for Mardero 

In their favor: An engineering master’s degree (10 of 15 possible points) and a job offer in a relatively high-skilled field (8 of 10 points) help make Mardero, 28, competitive; Puertas, 24, could see a similar rise in rankings as she nears graduation from the same San Jose State program. 

Points against them: Lack of U.S. work experience; no extra points for Mexico, but 5 points for being from Panama. 

Their stories: These two Latin American students are classmates studying industrial and systems engineering. 

Mardero is obtaining his master’s degree this year, so his looming graduation and a job offer put him ahead, for now, in the rankings.

Both earned full graduate scholarships from their nations on the condition that they return to work for a few years, but both also would seek permanent U.S. residency if they could.

The hardest part, Puertas said, is finding a U.S. company to sponsor her for a temporary visa: Only that would offer the work experience to make her competitive.

But both classmates might have a better, clearer alternative: The Senate bill would also grant an unlimited number of green cards for people who earn advanced U.S. degrees in science, engineering, technology or math.

Anda Gansca, Romania, tech entrepreneur

Points: 66

In her favor: Highlights include being a startup entrepreneur who employs at least two high-skilled workers (perfect 10 points): she also gets 8 points (the maximum) just for being younger than 25 (she’s 24).

Points against her: Having a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University earns her 5 points, but having a doctorate would be worth 15.

Her story: Gansca left her native Transylvania for Stanford in 2007 with a desire to “start a revolution that brings good change to people’s lives.”

She risked most of her savings after graduation to start a San Francisco company. She was lucky, she said, to obtain a five-year visa for investors.

Founded one year ago, her firm, Knotch, has designed a Yelp-like mobile app on which users rate their sentiments on topics — from sports games to politics — using a color-coded spectrum moving from hot to cold.

As the designer of an online ranking system, she was not too impressed with the Senate’s point scale.

Although she ranked highest in our group, she wonders whether the points categories are too rigid.

“People are just incredibly talented sometimes and that’s difficult to quantify,” she said.

A better system would be “more a trial or error type of thing. No one knows who’s going to be a good entrepreneur.”

Here is how two Bay Area residents fared on the 85-point scale for workers whose jobs do not require college degrees:

Sajjan Pandey, Nepal, gas station attendant

Points: 49

In his favor: Highlights include six years of full-time U.S. work (12 points), a steady job (10 points) and good work record (10 points); he’s also fluent in English (10 points) and from a country that does not send many immigrants here (5 points).

Points against him: At 58, his age gets him no points. And if the courts deny his pending claim for political asylum, he would likely have to return to Nepal and be unable to compete in the points system until he is well into his 60s.

His story: The gray-haired Pandey works the night shift at a gas station near Oakland’s airport.

“It’s an easy job for people like me,” said the Alameda resident, who once owned a popular restaurant in his hometown of Katmandu.

Pandey earns enough to pay his rent, but his seven years in the Bay Area have been lonely and on edge not knowing whether he can stay permanently.

He left his wife, sons, daughters and a 6-month-old granddaughter back home when he landed in San Francisco on a tourist visa in 2006, the last year of Nepal’s decadelong civil war. He sought political asylum saying that Maoist thugs threatened his life, but a judge denied his claim. An appeals board is reviewing the case.

The Senate bill has kindled his hopes. If deciding who gets a green card “was done quickly — just yes or no — it would be better for me,” he said. “The time factor is killing me.”

Reylla Ferraz da Silva, Brazil, housekeeper

Points: 41

In her favor: Highlights include being a primary caretaker (10 points); a good work record (10 points); knowing enough English to get by (5 of 10 points); civic involvement through her church (maximum 2 points).

Points against her: Most of her past work, paid under the table, did not count; no points either for being from Brazil, which sends many immigrants to the United States.

Her story: Da Silva’s thorough housekeeping in Peninsula homes has kept her in high demand, but immigration problems have long dogged her.

She reached a nadir in May when immigration agents jailed the nursing mother for 14 days in Richmond, keeping her from her 9-month-old son, Enzo, until a community outcry led to her release.

Few legal options exist for the 35-year-old San Bruno woman, a pastor-in-training who says more than half the congregants of her Assembly of God church share similar immigration problems. She is doubtful that the Senate’s plan will offer relief.

Even if a points system existed when she was in Brazil, her lack of U.S. work experience would have made it impossible for her to accumulate many points, she said. There are no points, she noted, for desiring freedom and liberty.

Once a low-level bureaucrat in her home state of Goias, da Silva crossed into the United States illegally and is seeking asylum because of persecution she says she experienced in Brazil.

The immigration bill’s best help for her might be its offer of 10-year probationary status for immigrants here illegally. If denied asylum and deported, she would not be eligible to apply for a green card for at least a decade.