Politics & Government

Thousands of legal immigration slots would be slashed under House plan

Tens of thousands of immigrants will be barred from entering the country under the compromise plan the House is about to consider.

About 560,000 total immigrant visas were issued in 2017, according to State Department statistics.

The House plan would switch 78,400 spots, currently reserved for visas for adult siblings and married children of U.S. citizens, to a merit-based visa system. Dreamers, those who entered the country illegally as children, could use that visa to eventually apply for citizenship.

It would also eliminate the annual 55,000 spots for the diversity visa lottery.

The merit-based visa would apply not only to Dreamers, but also to people who came to the U.S. as dependent children of legal immigrants. Their parents would have to enter the country as someone who sets up trade operations with foreign countries in services or technology, temporarily performs services or works for a company with specialized knowledge.

People who qualify for the merit-based visa would be evaluated on a point system — the more points earned, the more likely they would be granted the visa. But they must have at least 12 points under the system to qualify.

Points are awarded for levels of education. A bachelor's degree from a foreign institution on par with U.S. universities is 12 points. Also qualifying is military service, years of full-time employment and proficiency in the English language.

The bill would immediately protect Dreamers from deportation once the measure, which President Donald Trump has said he supports, is signed into law. They would have a year to apply for a special non-immigrant status that would be valid for six years.

After five years of living in the U.S. under that status, the estimated 1.8 million eligible Dreamers could apply for the merit-based visa, which allows them to apply for citizenship. But the merit-based visa would have more stringent requirements than the non-immigrant status.

Giving Dreamers a path to citizenship was a priority for Republicans pushing immigration reform, notably Reps. Jeff Denham, R-California, and Carlos Curbelo, R-Florida.

The elimination of the 55,000-slot diversity lottery — people randomly selected from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. — was favored by the conservative House Freedom Caucus and Trump, who have pushed to make the entire U.S. immigration system merit-based.

Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst for the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, said the bill's passage would be a major change in the family-based immigration U.S. that policy has favored since 1965.

"We've almost always privileged families the most," Gelatt said. "I think the country is overdue for at least a debate on merit-based versus family-based migration."

Though the diversity lottery is small compared to how many apply for it — more than 14 million people applied for a diversity visa in 2017 — Gelatt said it sends a message to other countries that they can have hope to come to the country and achieve the American dream.

"It builds a sense of goodwill about the U.S.," Gelatt said. "It's a diplomatic tool as well as an immigration channel."

The Freedom Caucus and the reformers have been working for months on an immigration plan they believe could pass the House and eventually become law.

A more conservative bill, which includes steeper cuts to legal immigration and is also supposed to get a vote this week, is seen as unlikely to pass even by its supporters. The compromise plan's prospects are better, though still regarded as slim.

President Trump continued his assertion that Democrats are to blame for children being separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. He said that changes to immigration laws could be made quickly if they were willing to negotiate with him.

In the compromise bill, Dreamers who do not qualify at the end of their six years under non-immigrant status could renew the status indefinitely, until they do qualify. Dreamers are the last category to be considered for the visa of all qualifying applicants, after the children of immigrants who came to the U.S. legally as E1, E2, H1B, and L visa workers.

The new visa will have 78,400 slots, except in 2025 — the first year Dreamers would theoretically be able to apply for the visa — when it will have 470,000. That number is a combination of the standard amount of slots, plus seven years of the 55,000 diversity visa slots now in the law. That's a compromise between the House Freedom Caucus and immigration reformers. After that, the visa slots are permanently gone.

The bill has no further effect on current visas besides the diversity lottery and the certain categories of family-based migration.

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071; @KateIrby