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For years, millions of immigrant applicants hoped they would be lucky enough to win the US green card lottery. Under reform being considered in Congress, they may soon be asking: "Am I skilled enough?"
By 2017, according to a proposed revamp of laws governing admission to the United States, permanent residency permits known as green cards could be doled out not on luck but "on merit," via a points system that would put more qualified applicants at the front of the line.
Are you a French computer scientist with a strong command of English, already living in the United States on a visa but whose employer is reluctant to sponsor you for permanent residency? The new system may work in your favor.
Nothing is set in stone yet, but an 844-page measure, the most comprehensive immigration reform in a generation, is working its way through the Senate, and members of the House say they, too, are hopeful a bill can be signed into law this year.
Ten criteria for immigrant applicants will be taken into account in the system, which has a theoretical maximum of 100 points.
Under the new system, a university degree will be worth five points, a master's degree 10 and a doctorate 15.
Each year of work experience will provide an applicant from zero to three points, depending on the employment level, for a maximum of 20 points.
Are you a programmer, computer scientist, or software developer? 10 points.
If your job is in an occupation related to your degree: 8-10 points.
A TOEFL English language proficiency score of 80 or more? Chalk up another 10.
Contractors who employ at least two people: 10 points.
Clearly, skills and experience count under the proposed system -- but so does youth. Those age 25 and under will receive eight points; 25-32 year old are awarded six points; and age 33-37 years, four.
Those age 38 or above receive no bonus.
A sibling of a US citizen earns 10 points, as does the married child, 31 or older, of a US citizen.
Community service will help. Those who can prove their "civic involvement" will be allocated five points.
A final clause gives five points to those from countries with low immigration, which rules out Mexicans, Chinese and Indians.
-- 120,000 green cards by 2017 --
Unlike other countries that have adopted the points scheme, including Britain and Canada, the exact bar for immigration admission under the proposed US system remains a mystery: other factors are also at play. But if your score is among the top 60,000, you will gain a green card.
Another block of 60,000 will also be awarded permanent residency based on criteria that favor lower-skilled labor such as construction.
The merit system will come into force from October 2017, provided that the immigration reform law passes President Barack Obama's desk this summer. Over the years, the number of green cards could rise to 250,000.
"For many at a bachelor level," or for someone whose employer doesn't want to serve as a sponsor, "you're in a bind," immigration attorney Gregory Siskind told AFP.
"So the points system will give you an alternative to relying on your employer to get a green card," he added. "For a lot of people, that's going to mean freedom."
Until 2013, a lottery offered 55,000 visas per year. But Republican lawmakers have sought to end the program, which makes no distinction between skilled and unskilled immigrants.
In addition to the points system, the Senate proposal provides quota-free green cards for extraordinarily qualified researchers, scientists and graduates of US universities.
"I don't think that the long waits that we've had for a while are going to be a problem for a couple of years."