Who will win this lottery?

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Recently, a friend brought to my attention a relatively minor change being proposed to current immigration law that could have a significant impact on the daily lives of older Americans and their families.

As I write, the Senate is marking up new legislation that would, among other things, eliminate the annual green card (or “diversity”) lottery that allows into the U.S. up to 55,000 people from a group of nations with otherwise low rates of immigration to the U.S.

The lottery is for workers with a high school degree or two years’ work experience (and without a criminal record) and their immediate families. The vast majority admitted are unskilled or low-skilled workers from African nations and the Caribbean, though some are from the Middle East and Asia.

These green cards are highly sought after. Nearly 8 million people abroad apply each year for these 55,000 slots, and those who get one really do feel as if they have “won the lottery.”

But this opportunity for ordinary people to come to America to work and start a new life may come to an end due to a bipartisan compromise that seeks to transfer those green card slots to higher skilled workers and immigrants with high-tech knowledge.

Many businesses in America today say they are unable to find enough new employees with the education and skills to perform sophisticated work. Too few American students excel at math and science or pursue those fields as a career. So we need to import the labor, the argument goes, and save our green cards for those with these qualifications.

But don’t we also hear from industries at the other end of the spectrum — those that hire less skilled laborers and workers who care for our sick and elderly — who say too few Americans are willing to take jobs paying low wages and involving demanding or disagreeable physical labor (think: helping people with toileting or caring for a combative Alzheimer’s patient)?

We need to import this labor force as well, it is said, or we will have no one to perform the relatively menial (and demandingly compassionate) work of child and elder care.

A significant portion of green card lottery winners, I am told, go into the latter jobs. I certainly have seen anecdotal evidence of that in meeting many certified nurses’ aides and home care aides hailing from African and Caribbean countries. Visit any skilled nursing facility or assisted living community in this area and you will see what I mean.

Not only do these immigrants fill a great need, they do so at a price that, while often beyond the means of those who need it, is still considerably less than the pay of the average American worker.

Certainly the availability of inexpensive labor is an issue for industries other than elder care. And it is debatable whether having a class of immigrant workers earning such low salaries is a good thing. (Of course, many do gradually work their way up the income ladder, as immigrants to America have done for centuries.)

But even viewed through this narrow prism, we can see that ending such a source of workers is likely to decrease the supply of home care workers even as demand for them increases, leading to a spike in costs and hardship for thousands who need the services.

Keep in mind that Medicare does not cover custodial long-term care expenses. When these services are needed — and the need is growing leaps and bounds as our longevity increases — they must be paid for out of pocket.

It is sad to me that, with a 7.6 percent unemployment rate in this country, we have to go abroad to find people willing and able to perform the highest and lowest paid jobs that keep our nation and families afloat.

But this does seem to be the case. I am guessing the companies looking for high-tech workers are investing more in lobbyists to expand immigration slots for their needs than are those companies that hire the less- or unskilled.

So if we want to protect this source of essential labor — while also offering the opportunity of a new and better life to a diverse group of people who seek to escape crushing poverty, civil war or worse — I think we ordinary individuals will have to speak up.

I encourage you to contact your political representatives. And please also send your thoughts to us as a letter to the editor via mail, email, or through our website, www.theBeaconNewspapers.com.