Progress Made On Immigration Bill

David Rogers, Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2007

Anxious to win Senate support for immigration overhaul, the White House is wrestling with how far to go to give future guest workers a shot at becoming permanent U.S. residents and citizens.

The issue illustrates the administration’s delicate balance as it tries to bring conservative Republicans aboard without driving off Democrats. Beyond politics, the question also goes to the heart of the legislation and whether the U.S. should invite in foreign labor without giving those workers any real chance of becoming part of this country.

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Meetings with Democratic and Republican senators today could produce new roadblocks, but overhaul supporter Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) is bullish enough to spend today shuttling between here and his state, which is hosting a Republican presidential debate tonight. “I’ve never felt more optimistic,” he said. “I’ve said 50-50. It’s now 70-30. I wouldn’t be flying up and back like this unless it was serious.”

The core bill, like the immigration-overhaul effort that failed in the last Congress, promises millions of undocumented workers now in the U.S. a path to citizenship. Under pressure from Democrats, heavy fines of $10,000 that would have been imposed on immigrants seeking to legalize their status have been cut in half. It would take from eight to 13 years to qualify for permanent residency under the bill, and conservatives have won restrictions to try to stem the tide of immigrants who may follow this mass legalization.

New border-security measures would be given top priority in the first 18 months after enactment. Current immigration rules that favor families would be replaced by a merit system making it harder for new citizens to bring in siblings and adult children. Even parents would find it harder; the number would be capped at 40,000 a year, less than half the number that typically come in annually.

In the same spirit, the White House has walked a fine line in negotiating a new guest-worker program whose Republican motto is “temporary means temporary.” The draft plan would create a new temporary “Y” visa for as many as 400,000 people a year, who could come to work in the U.S. for two to three years but then must go home. There would be exceptions in special circumstances for a narrow segment of workers, about 10,000 a year.

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The temporary-worker issue is among the last major stumbling blocks to be considered at a senators’ meeting today. Giving ground could help win a deal with Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, the lead Democratic negotiator. The administration last night said it was putting no pressure on Sen. Kyl on this issue.

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In the first eight years after enactment of legislation, most energy would be devoted to clearing the backlog of pending applications from people abroad or from those living here with a legal work visa. After eight years, the extra cards created to help clear this backlog will shift into the new merit pool, increasing the numbers.

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The ever-controversial H-1B visa program is undergoing a fresh round of congressional scrutiny as the U.S. Senate prepares to debate changes to the nation’s immigration system as a whole.

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Monday sent letters to nine foreign-based companies (click for PDF) requesting information about their use of the work permits, which allow foreigners with at least a bachelor’s degree in their area of specialty be employed in the United States for up to six years.

The questions ranged from the number of visa petitions the companies sent to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services last year, to the average age and number of years of experience of the company’s H-1B recruits, to a description of the firms’ efforts to recruit Americans for the same positions foreigners are ultimately filling.

The senators said they’re particularly troubled by statistics showing that many of the top 20 H-1B users in 2006 were consulting firms that recruit foreign workers, only to outsource them to offshore companies.

Companies receiving letters included Indian software and services giant Infosys Technologies, outsourcing leader Wipro Technologies, and several firms headquartered in India.

The politicians also voiced concern at reports that the average annual salary of foreign workers is lower than that of new American graduates and that companies are laying off American workers while keeping H-1B visa holders on their payrolls.

Earlier this year, Grassley and Durbin introduced a bill that would impose a host of obligations on employers before they could make H-1B hires. Among other things, they would have to pledge that they had made a “good faith” effort to hire an American before taking on an H-1B worker and that the foreigner was not displacing a prospective U.S. worker.

Meanwhile, a number of proposals in both chambers seek to elevate the number of H-1B visas, which high tech companies like Microsoft have long argued is necessary to fill gaps in their workforces. Critics of the H-1B system, which include groups representing American programmers and engineers, say there wouldn’t be a need to raise the quota if more attempts were made to prevent what they call H-1B fraud and abuse.

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