Supporters of a bipartisan Senate immigration bill prevented major changes to its visa program for high-skilled foreign workers, seeking to preserve a compromise backed by technology companies and labor groups.
The Senate Judiciary Committee adopted only minor amendments yesterday to the bill’s version of the visa program, which Congress created in 1990 to help U.S. companies fill job vacancies with skilled foreign workers.
After two days of marathon sessions in which dozens of amendments were considered, the bill that would give legal status to 11 million undocumented immigrants survived proposed changes that might have doomed it on the Senate floor. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he wants the legislation, S. 744, to reach the Senate floor in June.
In the House, controlled by Republicans seeking stronger border security, a bipartisan group of eight lawmakers has yet to agree on a measure. The House Judiciary Committee has begun examining issues piecemeal, and the Homeland Security Committee today drafted legislation to require a border-security plan.
The measure would set standards for measuring progress toward a two-year goal of “operational control” of heavily trafficked border areas and a five-year goal of controlling the full U.S.-Mexico border. Operational control was defined as apprehension of 90 percent illegal crossings.
Republicans on the panel rejected a Democratic proposal to authorize $3 billion for implementing the border-security plan.
“Before we talk about billions of dollars going out the door” Congress should first “know what the plan is,” said Mike McCaul, a Texas Republican and chairman of the Homeland Security panel. “I don’t want to throw money at this department on an ad-hoc basis because honestly I don’t trust them” to spend it wisely, he said.
The Senate immigration measure would authorize $4.5 billion for tighter border security and require a 90 percent apprehension rate along the full U.S.-Mexico border.
An inspector general for the Homeland Security Department testified last week at a Senate hearing that the agency lacks strategic planning for border security and reliable ways to measure its own performance.
House members called border security an essential ingredient to passing a comprehensive immigration law.
The border is “still not secure,” said Democratic Representative Ron Barber, whose Arizona district includes a section of the U.S.-Mexico border that accounts for half of the illegal drug seizures. “Unless we address that, we are going to have very few Republicans, if any, and several Democrats who aren’t going to vote for a bill,” he said in an interview.
On the H-1B visa program for high-skilled workers, the Senate’s measure would raise the annual visa limit to 135,000 from 85,000. It would allow further expansion to 180,000, depending upon economic conditions.
Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said companies such as Intel Corp. (INTC), EBay Inc. (EBAY), Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO) and Google Inc. (GOOG) “have benefited from immigrants and talented, foreign creators.”
“We need to do more to keep these companies and jobs for American workers in this country,” Leahy said. “Talented contributors from abroad also boost demand for local goods and enrich our communities.”
The Senate bill’s supporters say the proposal represents a compromise between technology companies that want to hire from overseas and labor organizations that seek to protect U.S. workers. The bill would require companies to advertise jobs before hiring foreign workers.
The panel adopted an amendment from Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, to increase the fees that must be paid by immigrants working in science, technology, engineering and math fields who apply for permanent residency. The money would be used to improve training within the U.S.
Hatch had planned to seek other changes to the H-1B provisions, though he agreed to hold off to see if lawmakers could reach an agreement that would accomplish his goals.
The Senate judiciary panel is scheduled to resume consideration of the measure tomorrow. Many of the approximately 300 amendments filed probably will re-emerge during Senate floor debate, even if the committee ends up rejecting them.
The committee adopted two other changes to the high-skilled visa program. A proposal by Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse would require creation of a toll-free number to receive complaints about employers that hire under the program. The other from Iowa Republican Charles Grassley would require more information in advertisements posted before foreign workers could be hired for high-skilled jobs.
Senators adopted another amendment from Grassley, the panel’s top Republican, that would require greater information-sharing about those who overstay student visas.
The proposal was prompted by the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings. Azamat Tazhayakov, a Kazakhstani national who was a friend of one of the bombing suspects and is charged with hindering the investigation, re-entered the U.S. in January on an expired student visa.
The panel rejected a proposal by Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions to limit the number of immigrants entering the U.S. Sessions, who contends that the legislation would prompt a wave of immigration that would harm U.S. workers, was the only committee member to vote for his amendment.
Senators also defeated an amendment proposed by Sessions to require the U.S. to create a biometric visa tracking system, such as fingerprinting or facial-recognition scans, before undocumented immigrants could become citizens.
Opponents said the proposal would require the biometric system sooner than is practical, would be too costly and would delay citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Also yesterday, six House Republicans held a news conference to denounce the Senate bill.
“It grants amnesty to everybody that’s here” and “destroys the rule of law,” Iowa Representative Steve King told reporters.
Only after the U.S. border is “100 percent” secure should Congress consider adjusting the status of the 11 million undocumented immigrants, said Louisiana Representative John Fleming. “We need to tear this thing up and start from the beginning,” he said.
King said he’s concerned that if the Senate passes its bill, “some version” would come to a vote in the House.
“Every Democrat would vote for it and it would only take a couple dozen Republicans” to pass it, King said. “We would be stuck with a very bad bill.”
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