Republican backlash against President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration may have poisoned the congressional well in terms of passing a comprehensive bill next year, but it’s also sparked renewed interest in a piecemeal approach.
Although that’s far short of the broader overhaul favored by immigration proponents, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed a willingness to come together on a narrower measure, one that focuses on raising visa caps for skilled workers, particularly in the fields of science and technology.
“High skilled immigration has been a bargaining chip in immigration reform trying to get the whole bill put together,” Neil G. Ruiz, an associate fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview. “Now it is quite possible Congress could pass a high skilled immigration act on its own.”
Congressional action of that sort would likely include lawmakers such as Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who said he supports legislation that would allocate more visas for highly skilled immigrants.
“I strongly favor an immigration policy that provides credit toward immigration to the United States to those who have higher skills, more education, speak the language and have the kind of skills that are in short supply,” Sessions said yesterday in an interview. “We clearly should do more like Canada and create a system that identifies the people who are most likely to be successful in America.”
Sessions said he could see himself introducing or cosponsoring a bill in the 114th Congress that would create an immigration system similar to the ones used by Canada and Australia, where foreign applicants seeking visas are awarded points based on their level of education, language skills, work experience and age. Those with the most points go to the top of the list.
“Most Democrats and some Republicans want to stick with the comprehensive bill deal put together by lobbies,” Michael Barone, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said in an email. “Passing one part of it as a standalone measure, in their view, would reduce the chances of passing a comprehensive bill or any one of the parts. The lobbies have been sticking together.”
Rep. Mike Honda, who represents Silicon Valley, is among those fighting for a comprehensive bill, but the California Democrat also supports legislation directed specifically at high-skilled workers. Honda said Obama’s executive action represents just one piece of the puzzle.
“It’s an important first step, but Congress needs to take the next step and create long-term, permanent solutions to address other areas, such as the employment visa backlog and the H-1B visa cap,” Honda said in an email. “Our current system does not allow for the fostering of high-skilled workers who have the greatest potential to bring innovation, expertise and competitiveness to our tech and other related industries.”
Honda is one of 14 cosponsors of H.R. 633, a measure that would increase the number of H-1B visas and eliminate the country caps. The Republican-led House took no action on that bill or a similar one, H.R. 714, that would extend conditional permanent resident status for as many as 50,000 workers who have a masters or doctorate degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
Both bills were introduced by Republican lawmakers – Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Rep. Michael Grimm of New York, respectively – and have bipartisan support. The lawmakers’ offices did not respond to requests for comments about the prospects for those measures next year.
Legislative efforts came to a halt earlier in the 113th Congress when Republican leadership in the House did not allow a floor vote on a Senate-passed comprehensive immigration bill.
Each year 140,000 employment-based visas are provided to foreigners seeking work in the U.S. The most common of those is known as the H-1B visa, distributed to a maximum of 85,000 workers. Visa numbers were last adjusted under the Immigration Act of 1990, which states that no more than 7 percent of total green card recipients can come from one country. That’s led to backlogs for skilled workers from certain countries.
“India and China are or are potentially large sources of high-skill immigrants,” Barone said, noting that each country has more than 17 percent of the world’s population. “Why should we limit them to 7 percent of visas?”
Sixty percent of computer science degrees in the U.S. are earned by foreign students, and 25 percent of scientists and engineers working in the U.S. are foreign-born, according to TechAmerica, the public policy department of IT industry advocate CompTIA. TechAmerica supports adjusting H-1B visa caps and the repeal of the per-country limits.
The 40,000 foreigners who enter the U.S. by way of the EB-3 visas – reserved for highly skilled workers with specific training and degrees – are also subject to country caps. That means the thousands of applicants from China, India and the Philippines are limited to the same percentage of green cards as Luxembourg.
The Obama administration is aims to rectify that.
“I’ll make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy, as so many business leaders have proposed,” Obama said on Nov. 20.
However, for some in the tech community, Obama’s executive actions are of little consolation, in part because they don’t specify new visa caps for skilled workers.
“These actions are no substitute for legislation, which remains the only way forward on the permanent solution to our broken immigration system our country so desperately needs,” Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, a group of tech industry leaders advocating for immigration reform, said in a statement.
While the prospects for comprehensive immigration legislation next year look bleak, a bill addressing high-skilled immigrants may emerge as one of the few bipartisan bright spots.