H-1B visa overhaul will struggle if immigration bill is broken up

Asylum seekers leave the Matamoros camp in Matamoros, Tamaulipas state, Mexico, to cross into the U.S. on Feb. 26, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Cesar Rodriguez.

Increases in visas for highly skilled foreign workers could fall by the wayside this year if Democrats decide to overhaul immigration through a series of small bills instead of the sweeping one put forward by President Joe Biden.

Biden’s immigration plan calls for dramatically boosting the number of green cards and expanding other avenues for high-skilled workers, a move welcomed by business interests, which have long sought reform of the H-1B visa and other programs.

But House Democrats are weighing a piecemeal approach to immigration that would put more popular measures like helping refugees, agriculture workers and people brought to the U.S. illegally as children first, leaving no leverage to push through less popular measures like increasing immigration for skilled workers.

Tech leaders like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai want Congress to expand and update the H-1B visa system since demand for skilled workers in computer and information technology far outstrips the annual cap of 65,000. But that reform, once backed by both parties, now faces bipartisan skepticism, according to lawmakers.

And without a strong advocate on Capitol Hill, any such measures could falter if asked to stand alone instead of as part of a large immigration package.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio said passing skilled worker visa reform during the pandemic-sparked economic crisis would be “pretty difficult.” And Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, who introduced Biden’s bill, said any additional foreign worker visas would only get support as part of a broader bill that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

“I’m happy to consider other things but the key is, how do I get the 11 million or parts thereof on a pathway?” Menendez said. “So it can’t just be high-tech visas and it can’t just be farm workers for growers.”

Senate Democrats haven’t settled on a strategy for immigration, either, leaving reforms for high-skilled workers at risk.

Support for expanding H-1B visas was broad-based in Congress for many years, as both parties courted business interests.

The visas, often used in the tech industry, are available to workers who have specialized training and advanced education. Fashion models “of distinguished merit” are also eligible under a separate category. But industries want the cap expanded, and workers’ rights groups argue that tying the visas to a specific employer hurts employees.

The sweeping immigration bill Democrats proposed at Biden’s behest does not raise the annual cap on temporary worker visas. Instead, it expands the number of employment-based green cards available, a move that advocates say will take pressure off the guest worker programs like the H-1B visa.

Xiao Wang, who heads Boundless Immigration, a Seattle-based startup that works to streamline the immigration application process, said that the current system forces foreign nationals who graduate from U.S. colleges to leave the country, taking their new skills with them. It also creates a bottleneck of skilled workers from India on H-1B visas who face country-based caps on getting green cards.

Any increase in H-1B visas will be a tough sell in the current Congress, amid potential opposition from labor unions on the left, a more hawkish stance on immigration on the right and a sour economy that makes bringing in workers from overseas seem unnecessary to voters.

Biden has supported unions, which are generally skeptical of temporary work visas, throughout his long career in politics.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka warned lawmakers not to support immigration bills that would “expand programs that treat workers as disposable commodities in our global economy.”

Meanwhile, Republicans are much less likely to support increases in high-skilled immigration than in the past, as the party shifted from a largely pro-business posture to a more restrictive stance on immigration under former President Donald Trump.

Former Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller and other hardliners met with conservative House members last week to plot their opposition to Biden’s immigration proposal, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting. Trump opposed most immigration as president, adopting restrictions that caused H-1B visa denials to grow from 6% in 2015 to 29% in mid-2020, according to an analysis by the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonpartisan think tank. Later, they were suspended entirely amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump also hit Biden on immigration in a speech Sunday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, signaling that Republicans plan to keep up their opposition.

Republicans splintered on immigration after a 2007 overhaul collapsed in the Senate. Later, GOP lawmakers aligned with the anti-immigration Tea Party movement began winning seats and holding fast to their opposition.

“You’ve lost a number of those more moderate Republicans who are probably more affected by the need for high-skilled visas, I think you’ve lost some of that for sure,” said John Sandweg, former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under President Barack Obama, citing the absence of Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake.

Wang said he’s doubtful that reforms will make it through “this round of policy making,” but he hopes that a strong economic recovery as the pandemic wanes could make it easier to return to the issue later.

Sara Blackwell, a labor attorney in Florida who sued The Walt Disney Co. over its use of H-1B visas, said that she hopes any changes include tougher requirements to ensure that big businesses aren’t abusing the system to bring in cheap labor from abroad. Since H-1B visas require a worker to have an employer to sponsor them, she argued that they make it difficult for foreign nationals to switch jobs, depressing their wages and hurting American workers in the same field.

“I do think there should be more requirements on making sure no American workers are available, especially with Covid right now and people being out of work,” she said.

The next steps will depend on whether the Senate tries to pass immigration reform all at once, where high skilled visa expansion could be included in a package, or by breaking it up into separate bills that would have to stand on their own.

Asked if he supports more H-1B visas or green cards for skilled workers, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin said only if it’s part of the horse-trading necessary to get a bigger bill with a citizenship pathway and other provisions.

“I’ll try to answer this tactfully: If it brings votes for final passage, it’s a priority,” the Illinois Democrat said in an interview.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden’s aides have not yet had “extensive conversations” with lawmakers on how his immigration proposal will move through Congress but indicated the package could change.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last month signaled she would consider taking on immigration changes piece-by-piece while Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Feb 23 that he prefers a comprehensive approach to “get as much done as possible.”

And while some Republicans are balking at expanding skilled-worker visas without a broader proposal that invests more in border agents and interior enforcement — a component that Biden didn’t address in his proposal — others say it’s best to tackle each piece separately.

“The problem with immigration is that everybody’s got their piece and they say, I have to have this or I can’t support it,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who is top Republican on the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration. “And then it adds up and finally crumbles under its own weight.”

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