Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is key to Republican hopes of capturing more of the Hispanic vote in 2016. And to achieve that goal, Rubio — a potential presidential contender — wants to be the face of the GOP's immigration plans.
Rubio recently unveiled an immigration proposal that calls for allowing more immigrants into the country who bring investment or skills, a guest-worker program for farm laborers and a path to citizenship for certain people in the United States illegally.
Rubio sees his immigration plan as something that can spur economic growth.
"I'm a big believer in family based immigration," Rubio told the Wall Street Journal. "But I don't think that in the 21st century we can continue to have an immigration system where only 6.5 percent of people who come here, come here based on labor and skill. We have to move toward merit and skill-based immigration."
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That precise figure — 6.5 percent — caught our attention, so we decided to check it out.
Rubio obtained the 6.5 percent figure from a January 2011 policy brief from the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank. The author, Brookings vice president Darrell West, called for immigration reform that in the short term would allow employers to hire workers with scientific and technological skills.
West argued that other countries, such as Canada, have already crafted policies to attract skilled and unskilled workers. Canada gives applicants points based on their field of study, education and employment experience.
"Some 36 percent of all Canadian immigrant visas are in the 'skilled-worker' category, as opposed to only 6.5 percent in the United States," West wrote. We contacted West to ask how he arrived at his figure.
West told us in an email that there are different numbers depending on the immigrant category and the definition of skilled workers. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security publishes numbers that relate to "legal permanent residents" and how many are family sponsored or employment-based.
"But even those numbers are not exact, because the employment category combines skilled and unskilled workers," West wrote. "My 6.5 percent figure was my best approximation of the conflicting numbers that exist in this area."
We looked at the numbers ourselves and found the vast majority of immigrants are accepted for family unification and a smaller slice are for employment, though the numbers vary depending on the type of visa and employment.
West's number drew from a group known as legal permanent residents. In 2011, a total of 1,062,040 persons became legal permanent residents. Family sponsored was the largest category for people who earned this status in 2011. Employment-based preferences accounted for 13.1 percent.
The Department of Homeland Security provides a breakdown for people receiving the employment-based preferences. "Professionals with advanced degrees" accounted for 6.3 percent. Another category combined "skilled workers, professionals and unskilled workers," and that accounted for 3.5 percent. (The combined category makes it difficult to pluck out a number for only "skilled" workers.) The 2011 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics shows that within those employment categories, the numbers reflect not just workers, but their spouses and children.
In evaluating Rubio's statement, his larger point is correct: Immigration data shows that most people come here for family reasons. But the number of legal immigrants who come based on employment varies depending on the type of visa and category of employment. One valid example is to look at legal permanent residents — 13.1 percent were employment-based preferences in 2011, and professionals with advanced degrees accounted for 6.3 percent.
The data isn't as precise as Rubio made it sound, but his basic premise is correct, and some numbers do support his claim. We rate this statement Mostly True.