The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation revising U.S. immigration law that includes an agreement between Senator Orrin Hatch and Democrats on visas for high-skilled foreign workers.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-5 to approve the measure authored by a group of four Democrats and four Republicans. Republican Hatch and two Republican co-authors of the bill, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, joined all of the panel’s Democrats in voting for it.
Even with the Republican support, Flake said the measure will require more changes on the Senate floor to win passage there and have a chance in the Republican-led House.
“There’s a lot of work to do on this, but this was a great process,” Flake said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has said he wants to bring the measure to the full Senate “as soon as it’s ready,” probably in early June.
Senator Patrick Leahy, the committee chairman and a Vermont Democrat, withdrew an amendment to provide immigrants in same-sex marriages with U.S. citizens equal benefits to heterosexual couples after Democrats and Republicans unanimously spoke against it.
“We now know this is going to blow the agreement apart,” said Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. “I don’t want to blow this bill apart.”
President Barack Obama in a statement after the vote congratulated the committee on its approval of the bill and said the measure “meets the challenge of fixing our broken immigration system.”
Several provisions Hatch proposed “were absolutely unacceptable; we tried to find those things that were acceptable and to build upon them, and I think we’ve reached a reasonable compromise,” said Illinois Senator Richard Durbin, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat and a co-author of the immigration proposal.
The Senate measure, S.744, seeks to balance a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., sought by Democrats, with enough border-security improvements to satisfy Republicans.
The accord with Hatch, a Utah Republican, would change the formula for calculating the number of visas for foreign technology workers while keeping the bill’s limit of 180,000 a year.
It would lift a requirement that companies look for a U.S. worker before hiring a foreign visa holder for all companies except those whose workforce is more than 15 percent foreign.
“If a firm has more than 15 percent foreign employees, there are going to be more rigorous standards in terms of recruitment and making these jobs available to Americans,” Durbin said.
He had pushed for protections for U.S. workers to be included.
Durbin, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York and other authors of the Senate immigration bill had been courting Hatch’s vote. Hatch had said he would oppose the measure unless Democrats agreed to his amendments favoring technology companies that seek to hire more high-skilled foreign workers.
“This took a while,” Schumer told the committee today. “It’s a compromise.”
The amendment included Hatch’s proposal to require employers to show that a U.S. worker wasn’t available only when they initially hire a foreign employee, not with each visa extension.
“Our amendment strikes a good balance,” Hatch told fellow Judiciary Committee members. He said it ensures that “no U.S. worker has been or will be displaced” by a foreign worker.
Unions led by the AFL-CIO labor federation said technology companies are trying to use the H-1B visa program for high-skilled foreign workers to undermine job security and opportunities for U.S. workers.
Hatch’s amendments “are unambiguous attacks on American workers,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in an e-mailed statement. The amendments “would mean that American corporations could fire American workers in order to bring in H-1B visa holders at lower wages,” he said.
Durbin said he didn’t expect an endorsement from labor organizations, “but we at least have worked with them and respected their input and have tried to reach an agreement that is close to the values they bring to the table.”
During its deliberations, the Judiciary Committee adopted about 100 amendments to the measure.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told reporters earlier today he was “hopeful” the Senate could pass immigration legislation, adding that Republican senators share “a view the status quo is not good.”
McConnell said he would vote to bring the bill to the floor so it could be opened up for amendments.
The Senate bill initially would raise the annual H-1B visa limit for high-skilled foreign workers to 135,000 from 85,000. Caps in future years could increase to 180,000, depending on economic conditions.
The measure would require companies to recruit U.S. workers before hiring foreign ones. Technology companies say that invites bureaucratic scrutiny by the government and lawsuits from U.S. workers.
Hatch has said it will take more than a deal on high-skilled visas to win his backing when the measure is considered by the full Senate.
For his vote then, Hatch said lawmakers must agree to his proposed changes regarding the taxes immigrants must pay and social benefits they receive.
“They’re going to have to resolve those conflicts for me, or I will have to vote against the bill on the floor,” Hatch said.
Hatch also said he wants to require immigrants who seek citizenship to pay additional taxes and to make it clear that unauthorized employment can’t count toward eligibility for Social Security benefits. He is proposing a five-year waiting period before those on the path to citizenship could receive subsidies under the 2010 health-care law.
The proposals improve the bill’s prospects for gaining the 60 votes needed for Senate passage and also for passing the Republican-controlled House, Hatch said.
“If they do some of the things I think ought to be done, then I think it’s got a chance,” he said.
Durbin said the agreement didn’t include Hatch’s additional requests.
“He’s bargaining for as many things as he can get,” Durbin said, referring to Hatch.