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Senators agree on high-skilled immigration reform, but Democrats insist it must be comprehensive

The current employment-based immigration system is dysfunctional and needs reform, panelists and lawmakers stated at a Senate Judiciary committee hearing on Tuesday. Judiciary Chair Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) presided over the hearing, which heard testimony from leaders in the business, higher education and immigrant communities, as well as three American mayors.

Both Schumer and ranking member John Cornyn (R-Texas) framed reform of high-skilled immigration policy as necessary for American economic competitiveness and, in particular, for keeping foreigners who are educated in U.S. universities in the national workforce after they graduate.

“We should staple a green card to their diplomas,” Schumer said in his opening remarks, instead of requiring them to leave once their student visas expire.

But the senior members sparred over whether reform of the employment visa system should be piecemeal, or part of a broader comprehensive package. Cornyn, addressing his Democratic colleague, said, “I think we can do just this,” arguing that the current stalemate in Congress over comprehensive reform didn’t mean that individual reforms couldn’t be achieved. But Schumer retorted that comprehensive reform is necessary because so many other stakeholders in the immigration debate want to be a part of successful legislation. Other Senate Democrats on the committee, including Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (R-Conn.) agreed.

Dr. Puneet S. Arora, an Indian-born clinical researcher who first entered the United States fifteen years ago and is still waiting for a green card, told the committee that the policy that prevents him and thousands of otherwise successful Indian immigrants in the United States from acquiring a permanent visa is the requirement that the fixed quantity of employment-based visas not exceed a certain percentage for each country of origin. Thus, the disproportionately large number of Indian immigrants to the United States means that Arora must wait many years on a long waiting list before getting his green card.

One point of controversy, picked up on by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), was whether there really are labor shortages in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) reliant industries. Dr. Ronil Hira, an immigration policy expert from the University of Rochester, said that other experts on the panel (those representing the employer side of the immigration debate) were misrepresenting the extent to which high-skilled jobs are really going unfilled because of a lack of qualified workers. He pointed out that high-skilled native-born American workers are suffering from high unemployment rates (although not as high as low-skilled workers are). But other panelists, including the CEO of NASDAQ OMX and the president of Cornell University, responded that looking at raw unemployment numbers fails to capture the ways in which jobs requiring very particular skills aren’t being filled for lack of candidates.

Hira argued that temporary visas are abused by companies located in the United States that use them to hire foreign engineers at below-market prices. Schumer agreed that he believes this is a problem, which was why he sponsored last year’s border enforcement bill, which raised the fees that high-tech companies must pay if they wish to sponsor foreign workers.

Perhaps the most contentious moment in the hearing was when Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), after lecturing the business leaders present for supporting the torpedoed 2007 Senate comprehensive reform bill, began to debate Microsoft’s top lawyer Brad Smith over whether a Canadian style points system would be better than the United States’ employer-driven immigration system: “I would take Canada’s system in a heartbeat,” Sessions said, because it was a “national policy” rather than a policy allowing businesses to pick and choose who should get a visa.

Canada’s immigration system assigns points to visa applicants based on their economic desirability, including such factors as the education level, languages spoken and other specific skills possessed by the immigrant. Business leaders and immigration experts have criticized points systems because they fail to directly take employers’ needs into account.

During the second part of the hearing, the committee heard from three mayors from across America, one of whom was the Republican mayor of Uvalda, Ga., who is a party to the lawsuit against that state’s new immigration law. Mayor Paul Bridges argued that the immigration law will devastate Georgia’s economy and actually decrease public safety because local police will be diverted to enforce the law.

Mayor David Roefaro of Utica, N.Y., highlighted the contribution that Bosnian refugees had made to his city’s economy. These Bosnian immigrants were admitted under the humanitarian, not employment or family, visa quota provided under existing U.S. immigration law, but Roefaro stated that they had nevertheless empowered Utica to create more jobs than they would have otherwise.

Schumer concluded the hearing with the concurring observation that many different types of immigrants can contribute to economic growth.

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