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GOP kingmakers push presidential candidates to reject family-based immigration system

MahurinImmigration_Thumb_1382.jpg
MahurinImmigration_Thumb_1382.jpg

Candidates who attended the Labor Day Palmetto Freedom Forum in Columbia, S.C., were asked to endorse unprecedented reforms to the existing U.S. immigration system. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who co-hosted the event along with Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and president of the American Principles Project Robert George, offered questions about both authorized and unauthorized immigration. To Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, King asked about the limits to legal immigration:

STEVE KING: Herman, there are 50 million people in line in foreign countries waiting to come into the United States legally. So how many would be too many?

CAIN: I don’t have an answer for that, congressman, because I would have to look at one, what type of qualifications do these 50 million people have, secondly, what type of skills and education do they bring with them. If they’re bringing us more problems than opportunities, then 50 million might be too many.

STEVE KING: Would you though, be favorable towards establishing illegal immigration policy that rewarded merits of applicants –

CAIN: Yes.

STEVE KING: I very much appreciate that response.

King also asked former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, “Is there such a thing as too many legal immigrants? And how would you define that? And how would you — and would you support a merit system to identify their ability to contribute to this economy, rather than familial and any other means that we have?”

The questions suggest that King, who is a prominent member of the U.S. House Tea Party Caucus and has considerable influence among the social conservatives that dominate the GOP Iowa caucuses, wants the presidential candidates to endorse an end, or at least a significant reduction, to family-based immigration.

Sixty-five percent of green cards are granted for family connections: 46 percent of green cards go to immediate family members and 19 percent go to extended family of U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Fourteen percent of green cards are granted for reasons of employment, 15 percent for refugees and 4 percent are selected through the “diversity visa” lottery. The U.S. employment visa system is structured around an employer-based system, wherein U.S. firms sponsor potential employees that meet the specific criteria needed to fill a certain job.

A merit-based immigration system, such as a Canadian-style “points system,” places greater emphasis on employment by ranking immigrant applicants on the basis of labor market-relevant skills such as language proficiency or graduate degrees. A points system was the centerpiece of the failed comprehensive reform efforts in 2007, spearheaded by the Bush White House and a Democratically-controlled Senate and ultimately foiled through determined efforts by DeMint and other Senate conservatives because of the provisions related to undocumented immigrants. Yet many Republicans maintain that they want a points-based system: Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) has said in congressional hearings that he “would take Canada’s system in a heartbeat.”

Because points-based immigration systems require immigrants apply directly to government agencies for visas, the power of employers within the system decreases, which, according to a Migration Policy Institute report (PDF), has both pros and cons. Point systems have greater legitimacy because they, “enable the government to set clear and transparent standards for the human-capital level of incoming immigrants, while conveying to the public that they are in control of economic-stream immigration.” But the report also reveals that in recent years, nations with exclusively points-based employment visa systems have made steps towards hybridizing their systems so as to incorporate the needs of employers, for example, by requiring that immigrants already have a job offer within the receiving country when they apply for a visa. It’s certainly true, however, that the United States is an outlier when it comes to the prevalence of family as a basis for permanent residence.

King has become a fierce and public opponent of many of the family-based components of the U.S. immigration system, which has led to some controversy and was most likely why he was ultimately skipped over for the job of immigration subcommittee chair when Republicans took over the House this year. He has referred to children born of undocumented parents as “anchor babies” because they qualify for citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment and can technically sponsor their parents for visas when they turn 18. And although such remarks are considered controversial they nevertheless coincide with an overall shift towards making an end to birthright citizenship a part of the conservative orthodoxy. Of the leading presidential contenders, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) was a cosponsor, along with King, of a bill that would end birthright citizenship that garnered significant support from House Republicans, and candidate Mitt Romney suggested ending birthright citizenship during his 2008 campaign (although he hasn’t commented on the issue since then).

Attempts to shrink family-based immigration would certainly draw opposition from the Hispanic Caucus and other lawmakers representing recent immigrants and their families. Indeed, many are frustrated with the already extremely long waiting lists for family sponsorship of green card applicants: Because no single country can surpass 7 percent as a country of origin for legal immigrants, immediate relatives of U.S. citizens from Mexico or the Philippines can expect to wait 15 years or more before their petition for family sponsorship is granted.

Nevertheless, King, Sessions, DeMint and other conservative would-be immigration reformers have significant sway in the current primary season, so it’s quite possible that candidates other than Herman Cain will be forced to make public their views on whether the family-based system needs changing.

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