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Editorial

Needs of economy, not politics, should drive US visa policy

AN OVERHAUL of US immigration policy is long overdue, based not on where an immigrant comes from, but on how much he or she can contribute to the American economy. The current system is an alphabet soup of categories and countrywide caps that do not line up well with the country’s economic needs. Only about 14 percent of green cards issued are related to employment, while about 66 percent are the result of family ties.

In recent years, the system has become even more complex, as countries that signed free-trade agreements with the United States used their leverage to carve out special deals for their own citizens. Chile is allowed work visas for 1,400 professionals each year. Singapore gets 5,400. Australia gets 10,500. So it’s not entirely surprising that Senator Scott Brown is seeking to add Ireland to this list, with 10,500 work visas for Irish people with college degrees. Brown’s bill would make Ireland the first country to get this deal without a free trade treaty.

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Brown argues that Ireland deserves special visas because changes in US immigration policy have disproportionately limited the numbers of Irish workers for decades. But Ireland has often benefited from temporary exemptions. In 1986, Representative Brian J. Donnelly, a Massachusetts Democrat, pushed for a visa lottery that awarded 4,161 visas to Irish applicants out of the first 10,000. In the 1990s, Representative Bruce Morrison, a Connecticut Democrat, created a program that gave out 120,000 green cards - 48,000 reserved for Irish applicants, whose undocumented immigrants had been left out of an earlier amnesty program.

By 2010, however, the numbers of Irish receiving green cards dropped to 1,500. And that number could fall further if Congress adopts a new “high-tech visa’’ program that would allow in more scientists from overseas. The nation needs to admit more immigrants with advanced technical skills. But special country-specific visa allotments that cover a much broader class of workers will only put more pressure on a broken system - and encourage a free-for-all era of “immigration earmarks’’ in which policy is shaped by the political clout of immigrant groups lobbying for their own narrow interests.

US immigration policy should be shaped, first and foremost, by a broad vision of what is good for America. If Brown’s bill fails to pass muster with his Republican colleagues - which seems likely - he should throw his weight behind efforts to simplify immigration and bring policies in line with economic needs.

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