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.”