Senate immigration bill would remake US economy

In this June 28, 2013, photo Patrick McGuire of Atwood, Mich., examines sweet cherries growing in his orchard. McGuire says a labor shortage caused by the immigration controversy is making it difficult for him and other Michigan fruit growers to harvest their crops. (AP Photo/John Flesher)
In this June 28, 2013, photo Patrick McGuire of Atwood, Mich., examines sweet cherries growing in his orchard. McGuire says a labor shortage caused by the immigration controversy is making it difficult for him and other Michigan fruit growers to harvest their crops. (AP Photo/John Flesher)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Landmark immigration legislation passed by the U.S. Senate would remake America’s workforce, bringing more immigrants into numerous sectors of 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 would be legal, some of them permanent resident green card holders or even citizens.

Illegal immigration across the border with Mexico would slow, while legal immigration would increase markedly.

That’s the portrait that emerges from recent analyses of the far-reaching immigration bill passed last month by the Senate with the backing of the White House. The bill faces challenges ahead in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where conservatives are wary of anything that appears to offer amnesty to people living in the U.S. illegally.

The bill offers a 13-year path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants already here illegally, the most contentious element of the legislation. But that has little impact on the overall population size since the people involved are already in the country, even if they end up transitioning to legal status. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that some 8 million of them would do just that.

Although the bill aims to secure U.S. borders, track people overstaying their visas and deny employers the ability to hire workers here illegally, it doesn’t seek to choke off immigration. Indeed, it would increase the U.S. population over the next two decades by 15 million more people than current law, 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.

The level of immigration under the legislation has been a political issue and will likely to continue to be disputed in the weeks ahead by the House’s Republican majority.

Opponents have forecast dramatic increases in immigration under the bill, with some 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.

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, which 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 for lower-skilled workers that could go up to 220,000 a year, and more visas for agricultural workers.

There are also tens of thousands of new work visas set aside for people from Ireland, South Korea, African and Caribbean countries and elsewhere that got special deals in the bill. 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. Illegal immigration has already decreased since 2000 due to a combination of factors, including the economic downturn and greater security measures in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

The immigration bill also shifts the emphasis of U.S. immigration policy away from family ties and put more weight on employment prospects, education and relative youth. It also raises ceilings on how many immigrants could come from any one country.

“There’s not going to be a dramatic change that we will see overnight, but longer-term changes,” said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

With agriculture’s once-mighty political influence in decline as its workforce has fallen to 2 percent of the population, it’s uncertain how that industry will fare. Farmers’ complaints about a shrinking labor pool are being overshadowed by the ideologically charged issues of border security and giving legal status to people in the country illegally.

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Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed.

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