WASHINGTON -- The country may be on the verge of its next demographic metamorphosis.
The explosive growth of Hispanics that upended the country’s black and white racial dynamics may be flipped again as leaders in Washington have begun a debate on the most far-reaching immigration overhaul in decades.
The outcome might serve as a historic marker for a new wave of highly skilled immigrants — most likely from China and India — who may alter the racial and ethnic fabric of our cities and states for generations to come.
The battles being waged on Capitol Hill have been largely focused on border security and whether to grant citizenship to the 11 million people who already are here illegally. But some experts say those controversies might be a mere footnote in comparison with changes that may affect everything from the leaders we elect to how we teach our children math and science to the food we eat for dinner.
This week, the Senate delves into a full-scale debate on a bill that might swing the pattern toward more, and more highly educated, immigrants with strong backgrounds in science and engineering. Many are from China and India, but in the future they may come from somewhere else.
The proposal on the floor would eliminate some 90,000 annual visas given to the siblings and married adult children of legal immigrants already here. The legislation instead would give up to 110,000 visas to people skilled in science and math.
Over time, this might bring about a significant change to the melting pot that defines our country. Time after time in history, federal policy has affected who does and doesn’t get to come to America.
Consider the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended Chinese immigration for 10 years, slowed the growth of Chinatowns in New York and San Francisco and limited most immigration to that from European nations.
Consider the impact of Ellis Island in New York, which served as a gateway for millions of European immigrants and shook up the American diet by introducing new foods from other countries. According to a history of the island, some 40 percent of U.S. citizens have ties to Ellis Island immigrants.
New demographic changes due to an overhaul wouldn’t be immediate. If a 2013 immigration law passes, little would seem different for at least five to 10 years, experts say. The growth of Latinos in the short term would still be large, considering that the majority of the 11 million people here illegally and an additional 4.5 million on waiting lists for green cards are primarily of Latino decent.
But 20, 30 and 40 years from now, a new wave of highly skilled immigrants, and their children, will be more apparent.
Last month, a headhunter called Pan Wu, a Chinese theoretical-chemistry doctoral student at North Carolina’s Duke University, and dangled a good-paying programming job at a growing medical-device company nearby. Pan grew excited as the recruiter praised his resume and told him how his science and computer skills fit the company’s needs. But the conversation’s tone turned when the recruiter asked whether he had a green card.
“I’ll have to call you back,” the headhunter told Pan, who’s studying on a student visa.
She has yet to do so.
“It’s frustrating,” Pan said. “She didn’t think the company would be able to get me a (work) visa.”
The goal of the immigration overhaul that’s being argued in the Senate is not to change the composition of the country, said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, one of the Republican leaders of the “Gang of Eight” proposal and a possible presidential candidate. But he said the world had changed dramatically. The country must compete in a global economy, and that means moving away from a family-based system to a more skills-based system in which new immigrants are better prepared to contribute to the 21st-century economy, he said.
“I don’t think this country has ever been a country geared toward bringing more people from one part of the world or another,” he said. “What we’ve always largely been is a collection of go-getters. We’ve always tried to say if you have a dream and a skill and a work ethic to pursue, we want you to come here. We’ve always been welcoming of people from all over the world.”
Duke University is based in Durham, a key piece of North Carolina’s Research Triangle region, where some of the changes are likely to be felt first. In that Durham joins Silicon Valley, California, Tacoma, Wash., and Forth Worth, Texas, where major companies such as Google, IBM, and Microsoft compete for foreign talent.
They’re spending millions lobbying Congress for the chance to hire more. Currently, about 65 percent of legal immigrants are admitted because they have family connections in the United States. Just 14 percent come in for employment, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Humanitarian cases make up the rest.
The new bill would nearly double the cap for highly skilled visas, known as H1-B, from 65,000 to 110,000. It also would place greater emphasis on the need for American-trained science and tech workers by boosting the number of visas for foreign-born students with master’s and doctoral degrees in those fields.
“I do think we’ll see big changes. Not immediately, but into the next generation,” said Audrey Singer, a demography and migration specialist at The Brookings Institution, a research center in Washington. “If we get a shift toward a much greater percentage of employment-based immigrants, we will see a demographic shift and a compositional shift in terms of country of origin.”
Migration experts are quick to point out that no one has a crystal ball. But trends that show increasing demand for skills, particularly in specific metropolitan areas, can serve as a proxy for what’s likely to continue and expand if laws allow them to.
Durham, for example, requested 3,000 visas for highly skilled workers in 2011, the third most requests in comparison with its current workforce (nine requests per thousand workers), according to a Brookings analysis of H-1B visas.
Silicon Valley ranked first, with 17 requests per 1,000 workers. Seattle-Tacoma ranked ninth, with 5.6 requests per thousand and the Fort Worth area was 16th, with 3.65 requests per 1,000 workers.
Most of these highly skilled visas go to Asians. According to the Department of Homeland Security, natives of India had the highest number of H-1B visas in 2011, composing 58 percent of approved petitions. Those born in China received 8.8 percent. This has remained consistent for the last decade, according to the Brookings Institution.
Meanwhile, Asians have surpassed Latinos as the fastest-growing racial group in the United States. From 2000 to 2010, the Asian population grew 45 percent. And Asians are more likely to have college degrees. Nearly 30 percent of Asians 25 and older had bachelor’s degrees in 2010, compared with less than a fifth of the remaining U.S. population.
The Senate proposal also seeks to attract younger immigrants. Under the bill’s proposed merit-based points system, a prospective visa applicant would receive 10 points if he or she had an offer from a “high demand” field.
Applicants would receive an additional 8 points if they’re between the ages of 18 and 24, and four points if they’re between 33 and 37, but no additional age points if they’re older than that.
“We can’t ignore the age factor,” Singer said. “Even if a lot of people don’t come on the age point system, workers tend to be younger and they tend to be people who either have young families or are going to start young families when they come here. That’s another shift.”
Critics charge that so-called merit programs split up families, because U.S. citizens wouldn’t be able to sponsor their siblings or adult married children. But Rubio said the country must move away from a family-based system if it wanted to remain a leader in the global economy.
“And I say that as someone whose parents came here in a family system,” he said. “But they came here in 1956, and the economy of the United States in 1956 looks very differently than it does today.”
The reality is that no one really knows what will happen decades from now. Some don’t think the changes will be very dramatic.
Muzaffar Chishti, the director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at New York University School of Law, notes that many of those on the nation’s immigration backlog are Latino and that they have their own children. That growth might offset other changes.
“We really don’t know. There are too many unknowns,” he said.
Pan, who recently married another Duke student from China, expects that he’ll return to China. He’s OK with leaving the United States because he wants to live close to his parents. But he also hopes he’ll be able to stay here at least for a few years while his wife finishes school. He has a goal of both of them landing jobs in California, possibly the Silicon Valley, where traveling to China for visits would be easier. He could see the couple raising a family here.
“It depends on the future and if we can get a green card,” Pan said. “Living here and working here is more comfortable. We’d prefer to stay.”