Commentary: Immigration: You Can't Test For Drive And Ambition

Huddled masses, beware. Americans are fed up not only with illegal immigrants but with legal ones, too. As Congress revs up the immigration debate again, some would-be reformers are pressing for an overhaul of U.S. admissions criteria. They want to cut down on the number of newcomers to the U.S. on family-unification visas by creating a point system that measures applicants' potential for contributing to the economy. The criteria: education, job skills, and English-language abilities.

At first blush, skills-based admission sounds appealing. After all, today's high-tech economy is a far cry from the turn of the century, when immigrants helped build the nation by manning assembly lines, constructing railroads, and toiling in the mines. These days, the U.S. needs highly trained workers to fuel a globally competitive, knowledge-based economy. "We could create a hundred Silicon Valleys in the U.S. if we had a smarter immigration policy," says Stephen Moore of the libertarian Cato Institute.

Using a similar argument, Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee on immigration, plans to introduce a bill this summer that would establish a point system in the U.S. It would mimic procedures employed by two of the world's largest immigrant nations, Canada and Australia, which admit about half of their newcomers using the point system.

ETHNIC SCREENING? But in the U.S., such wholesale change is unnecessary. Today's immigrants aren't lacking skills and education, as detractors claim: By some measures, they're better equipped than U.S. natives. Besides, negotiating the measurements used to gauge potential success in America would hardly be a politically tenable process.

More important, the motivation for skills-based reform seems to have less to do with worries about the employability of newcomers than with their potential for cultural assimilation. "Family reunification has overwhelmed our system," complains Simpson. "We have people in the U.S. without English skills, who don't come out of their enclave."

If the reformers were truly indifferent to national origin, they would address such concerns through programs that encourage Americanization, such as special English classes, rather than screening out non-English-speakers at the door. Says Cecilia Munoz, an immigration advocate at the National Council of La Raza: "In some circles, a skills-based system is a proxy for white vs. non-white immigrants."

Economic concerns don't hold much water either. True, about 80% of legal U.S. immigrants now come on family-reunification visas, and 87% come from Latin America and Asia. But family-based immigrants aren't necessarily unskilled. An Urban Institute study, which screened out newcomers from such countries as Mexico and El Salvador because they deliver the most illegal aliens and refugees, found that 74% of remaining adult legal immigrants had high school diplomas, vs. 77% of those born in the U.S. Some 33% had college degrees, vs. 20% of native-born Americans.

ENTREPRENEURS. Despite the hand-wringing about unassimilable masses, moreover, the evidence shows that today's immigrants aren't so parochial. The 1990 census found only 28% of immigrants arriving that year lived in households where no adults spoke fluent English. And although immigrants start with lower earnings, their median wage growth measured at 6.7% in 1988, compared with 4.4% for workers born in the U.S., according to a study by economists Harriet Orcutt Duleep and Mark C. Regets.

Immigrants still appear to be bringing the immeasurable traits needed for success in the U.S.: drive and ambition. Entrepreneurship rates run as high as 18% for Korean Americans and 15% for Greek Americans. Overall, the 7.2% self-employment rate among immigrants edges the 7% rate for the U.S.-born. "I'm not sure we could hit upon the right proxies for [such ambition] in a point system," says New York University sociologist Guillermina Jasso. Rather, as long as the U.S. can continue to attract highly motivated newcomers who will work hard to reshape themselves into Americans, the nation will gain from their presence--no matter where they come from.

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