Congress works. Or so it seemed for a day this week when the House of Representatives voted 389 to 15 to ease restrictions on the entry of highly skilled immigrants to the U.S.
The Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2011 was sponsored by conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats alike. It avoided the political pitfalls of comprehensive immigration reform by focusing instead on a very narrow yet necessary change, eliminating country-specific caps on immigrant engineers, computer scientists and the like. In a measure of its broad support, the legislation is backed by technology companies, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and pro-immigration groups.
Under current law, immigrants from an individual country can claim no more than 7 percent of the 140,000 employment green cards issued annually. As Representative Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee, pointed out, that cap applies equally to Iceland (population 300,000) and India (1.2 billion and rising). Removing the caps will enable U.S. companies to retain more skilled immigrants from countries such as India and China, which have a surfeit of scientists and technologists eager to work in the U.S.
In addition, the legislation would raise the country limit for family green cards from 7 percent of a total of 226,000 to 15 percent, thereby easing backlogs for immigrants from Mexico and the Philippines, in particular, and helping, perhaps, to strengthen families.
What the legislation will not do is increase the total number of green cards dispensed. That’s a shame because doing so could help boost a still-sagging U.S. economy. Only 15 percent of visas are granted for economic reasons, a policy that undermines U.S. companies competing in a global talent pool. Foreign students account for the majority of computer science and engineering doctorates earned from U.S. institutions. (In 2006, more than 4,500 foreign students earned engineering Ph.D.’s in the U.S., almost two-thirds of the total.) Yet there’s no policy to allow, let alone encourage, them to stay in the U.S. after graduation.
Add in that immigrants have a much higher propensity to create new businesses -- a Duke University study found that they helped found more than a quarter of the technology and engineering companies established in the U.S. between 1995 and 2005 -- and one is left wondering why this simple visa reform didn’t take place eons ago.
The answer, of course, is politics. Republican presidential candidates are busy competing to make the most nativist appeals for votes. After the House passed its legislation on Nov. 29, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, host of the upcoming caucuses, promptly placed a hold on the bill, which is expected to have broad support from his Senate colleagues.
The 112th Congress has made little progress of any sort and none at all on immigration. There is no reason a bill that passed the House by an overwhelming margin should be stymied in the Senate. For the health of the U.S. economy -- and perhaps for the health of Congress itself -- this eminently passable, aggressively unobjectionable, bipartisan legislation should be approved quickly.
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