Green card lottery opens but US immigration policy still anyone's bet

Immigration policy is likely to be a key 
issue of contention in the upcoming
Presidential election.  

As the United States prepares for another year-long Presidential election campaign, the direction of federal and state immigration policy is becoming an increasingly contentious issue. The next President, whether it is Barack Obama or a Republican challenger, will have to find a policy platform that reconciles the wishes of industry to import skilled labour in a failing economy, with the passionate fervour and electoral appeal of the anti-immigration lobby.

Like Fort Knox itself, America has always been notoriously difficult to get into. For those that seek a life in the states beyond a 90-day tourist trip along route 66, the only real options are very limited places for family members, skilled workers and occasional lucky winners of the US visa or 'green card' lottery.

The Green Card or 'diversity visa' lottery opened last week and will give as many as 50,000 people from eligible countries a chance to live and work in the US. The number may seem generous but the odds are not good. Last year more than 14 million applications were received by the US Department of State for the 2012 intake.

Meanwhile, as lottery entrants around the world bite their nails and wait for their numbers to come up, debates about American immigration policy are raging domestically on a number of fronts.

On one hand, we have seen a growing popularity for the theory that skilled migration will benefit the struggling economy and labour market. The Council of Jobs and Competitiveness - made up of leading American businesspeople including General Electric Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt, AOL co-founder Steve Case and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg - will hand a report to President Obama at a council meeting in Pittsburgh today, recommending a number of policy changes aimed at creating jobs and increasing global competitiveness.  Among the findings is a recommendation to liberalise the visa system to allow foreign graduates of US science and engineering degrees to stay and work in the country.

"When it comes to driving job creation and increasing American competitiveness, separating the highly skilled worker component is critical. We therefore call upon congress to pass reforms aimed directly at allowing the most promising foreign-born entrepreneurs to remain in or relocate to the United States," the council report states.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg - who is also a multi-billionaire businessman - also recently called publicly for immigration reform, describing an increased skilled migration intake as "the solution to unemployment".

So key figures in American business and economics are praising the benefits of more immigration. But somehow their calls are being stifled.

This is because on the other hand the perennially hot topic of illegal immigration has once again reared its head just in time for election season. In June, Republican Governor of Alabama Robert Bentley signed a bill that forces educational authorities to check the immigration status of students and parents regularly and to prohibit those without valid papers from attending class. The law also makes it a criminal offence to knowingly harbour illegal immigrants, and imposes large financial penalties on businesses that hire workers that are in the US illegally.

A similar tough stance on illegal immigrants was legislated in Arizona in April 2010, and many other states with large Hispanic populations are following suit. Critics have been quick to condemn the trajectory of immigration policy in the Southern states, claiming that laws like these set a precedent for racial discrimination.

"You cannot tell if a person walking on a sidewalk is undocumented or not, so this is a mandate for racial profiling," said Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

The Obama Administration has also weighed in on the debate, with the Justice Department seeking to challenge the Alabama immigration law in the federal Court of Appeals, thereby opening up a whole other can of worms over state sovereignty and federal powers. The Federal Government also brought legal action against the state of Arizona.  

"To the extent we find state laws that interfere with the federal government's enforcement of immigration law, we are prepared to bring suit, as we did in Arizona," US Attorney General Eric Holder said in warning to Alabama legislators and other states considering harsh laws on illegal aliens.

This hardline approach to migrants that do not have a valid US visa is also gaining traction in the Republican presidential candidate race. One of the front-runners to challenge the incumbent Obama, Governor Rick Perry of Texas has recently dropped dramatically in the polls over comments he made on the Alabama law. Governor Perry argued that denying children an education, regardless of US visa status, will have a negative impact on the long-term economy. Perry's supporters felt this position was soft and he has since revised his stance.

Perry's poll movements over recent weeks show that immigration could well be a deciding policy issue not just in the Republican primaries, but in determining who the next President is.

The issues of monitoring illegal immigration and determining the intake of skilled foreign labour are very different and require different policy responses. However, in the frenzy and noise of an American election campaign, complex policies and ideas can be reduced to stereotypes and sound-bites.

The Obama Administration has been making positive noises on support for skilled migration. If the Democrats secure a second term, there is a chance they will heed the call of business and increase the skilled migrant intake, which could mean more opportunities to live and work in the States.

But if you find yourself working in Arizona or Alabama, just make sure you have your papers.

- Aleks Vickovich is Online Editor for the American Visa Bureau, an independent consultancy specialising in helping people lodge applications for an ESTA visa.