Fairness for High-Skilled Immigration Act
Ironically, of the three branches of government, the one specifically charged with enacting laws has been just about silent on the immigration front. The 112th Congress has neither passed nor significantly moved forward any important immigration proposal this year except, most recently, the now-stalled Fairness for High-Skilled Immigration Act, HR 3012. On November 29, the House of Representatives passed HR 3012, the first significant piece of immigration legislation passed by either the House or Senate all year. Passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support, the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigration Act eliminates entirely by fiscal year 2015 the current per-country cap on the employment-based visas and is designed to eliminate long wait times for workers from high-demand countries such as India and China. It also increases the family-based per-country cap from 7 percent to 15 percent. Before the bill can become law, the Senate must take up the legislation and President Obama would have to sign it into law. Meanwhile, Senator Grassley (R-IA), a long-time, staunch opponent of pro-immigration reform, placed a “hold” on the legislation in order to delay its consideration, citing his concerns about the impact of the bill on future immigration flows, among other things. It is unclear how long he intends to hold the legislation hostage. In any event, some are hedging their support for the bill by noting that backlogs will not be truly eliminated but instead merely passes the buck down the line, inevitably creating backlogs somewhere else in the immigration visa quota system. The bill does not make any change in the overall number of green card visas available each year for skilled and professional workers and their dependents – 140,000 – a number enacted into law more than 20 years ago.
Tinkering at the margins, congressional committees recently have conducted a number of recent hearings on important immigration issues. A round up includes the following:
A House of Representatives hearing led by Representative Steve King (R-IA) was the first-ever congressional review of Secure Communities, the three-year-old program where the FBI shares the fingerprint data of arrestees from local (and state) law enforcement agencies with DHS. For several years now the program has been criticized for leading to racial profiling and interfering with community policing. Despite these claims, the Administration has directed ICE to expand the program, and an ICE official testified at the congressional hearing that DHS has safeguards in place to alert them of possible abuse. It is doubtful that any substantive changes will come from the hearing.
Visa Waiver Program
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) is also subject of scrutiny as many call for its expansion. The program allows nationals from 36 countries to visit the United States for 90 days or less without securing a visa in advance. Many, especially the tourism industry, advocate for expanding opportunities to other nationals as good for the American economy, citing the VWP as the single largest program of inbound U.S. travel in 2010. It is unclear from the hearings whether any substantive changes will be made, though some countries, including Taiwan, are hopeful to be included if the program expands. The House hearing follows a recent State Department announcement that the U.S. is falling far short of meeting a growing worldwide demand for visas, undermining U.S. competitiveness now and into the future.
EB-5 Investor Program
The EB-5 Entrepreneur Investor Visa Program is up for review. Created in early 1990s and lauded as a job creator and a vehicle to drive the economy, the program has been perennially underutilized, issuing fewer than 2,500 visas in 2010 out of a possible 10,000. A Senate reauthorization hearing on December 7 was to review the Regional Center program, a component of the EB-5 program that permits a $500,000 investment in targeted employment areas in approved pooled investment programs instead of a $1 million, and is set to sunset in 2012. Most observers agree that the program will be reauthorized, perhaps permanently.
Foreign Students Educated in STEM Fields
Continuing the emphasis on economic competitiveness, hearings also have been held to examine options for reforms that do a better job of retaining foreign students who graduate in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Currently, foreign students must leave the United States upon graduation unless they are eligible for one of the few and limited ways to stay in the country. Many politicians are upset that we provide stellar education but don’t reap the benefits. On the presidential trail, hopefuls have also stepped up the rhetoric: Newt Gingrich said during the CNN debate in November that foreign students graduating with STEM degrees should automatically receive work visas.
Combined with the approaching 2012 election cycle and candidates staking out positions, we can expect continued hearings on Capitol Hill on immigration but no comprehensive reform, even though a new nationwide poll shows a large majority of Americans favor a path to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants.