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U.S.: Legislator Thinks America Needs More Educated Immigrants

Washington, 19 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S. congressman says he is considering proposing legislation that would bump educated foreigners to the top of the list of people seeking to immigrate to America, and make it harder for poorly skilled and undereducated people to take up legal residence.

Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Immigration Subcommittee, made the comment Tuesday in Washington during a briefing with reporters.

He said his proposed legislation would be "in the best interest of America" and would not reduce or increase the number of immigrants, only make it easier for educated people to enter the United States.

Explaining further, Allen Kay, the press secretary for Smith, told RFE/RL the legislation is intended to help bolster the U.S. economy and not significantly change America's immigration policy.

Kay says Smith's proposed legislation would not give immigration preference to one country over another or impose quotas of any kind. Instead, says Kay, the concept is simple -- just put immigrants who have at least a high school diploma at the top of the immigration list. This would not preclude unskilled or undereducated people from immigrating, he adds, it simply gives a slight edge to those who are better educated.

Says Kay: "Ninety percent of future jobs in the U.S. will require a high school education or greater. Two-thirds of our population growth, and therefore, two-thirds of our work force, is going to come from immigration. And only around 50 percent of immigrants currently have a high school education or greater."

Mark Krikorian, Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington told RFE/RL that his organization thinks Smith's idea is a good one.

Krikorian says the proposed legislation is simply a "modest fine-tuning" of America's current immigration policy which will, in the long run, benefit the U.S. economy.

Says Krikorian: "Educated immigrants are more likely to be able to contribute to the advancement and development of the economy. By the same token, they are less likely to hold the economy back and less likely to bolster the low-skilled work force, which in a sense, is a kind of drag on the economy. [Smith's] proposal would take away the drag of low-skilled immigration."

He says about 40 percent of adult immigrants to America never completed high school and are harming the U.S.'s own poor and undereducated work force. He says toughening educational standards for immigrants should not be a big issue.

Krikorian says: "This is a pretty low threshold. It is simply requiring a high school diploma, which, in a sense, is not so much selecting the best and the brightest from overseas, but trying to screen out the very lowest educated people."

But Smith's proposal has many immigrants and pro-immigration organizations up in arms. They say the proposal is reminiscent of a anti-immigration literacy requirement legislated by the U.S. Congress in 1917.

The literacy requirement, which was passed over the strenuous objections of then President Woodrow Wilson, required all immigrants sixteen years old or older to pass a reading test in their own language. Several members of the U.S. Congress at that time openly acknowledged the requirement was intended to reduce the number of uneducated immigrants to the U.S.

Pro-immigration forces eventually pressured Congress to overturn the literacy requirement after just a few years. And today, pro-immigration organizations in the U.S. say they are ready to fight such standards again.

Judy Mark, Director of Communications at the National Immigration Forum -- a coalition of pro-immigration organizations -- told RFE/RL that Smith's proposal is a betrayal of U.S. history and tradition and "an unprecedented attack on family immigration that this nation of immigrants has never seen before."

Says Mark: "Most of us can trace our roots to an immigrant who lacked a formal education -- certainly through high school -- because many, many poor and underdeveloped countries don't offer free education for their people and children. It in no way impacts on the productivity and benefits they bring to America when they come here."

Mark says beliefs that uneducated and unskilled immigrants somehow harm the American economy or indigenous unskilled workers are "unfounded and untrue." She adds that numerous studies on the impact of unskilled immigrants on the U.S. economy have shown that there is a very limited effect on American low-income workers and their wages.

Says Mark: "We've had a fairly generous 30-year run of immigration, and yet...if you just look at the growth of the U.S. economy and the strength of it right now -- even though we've had relatively high levels of immigration -- you will see that it actually has not had an impact."

It is unclear how the proposed legislation will be received in the Congress. Immigrants are the largest and fastest growing voting block in America today. Many ethnic groups like Hispanics and Asians have powerful lobbies in Congress.

Mark says she believes the legislation will receive "very limited" support in the U.S. House of Representatives and "virtually no" support in the Senate.

Adds Mark: "[This legislation] will simply not fly. It will not even get off the ground. In fact, it is a shame that such a proposal is even being considered."