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.