By Mike Lillis - 04/24/13 06:06 PM EDT
Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) this week hounded a top Democratic negotiator in the immigration debate, urging Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) to reject a Senate proposal to eliminate "diversity" visas.
Those visas — used frequently by African and Caribbean immigrants to enter the United States — are phased out in the Senate's sweeping immigration reform package and replaced with a merit-based system that many black lawmakers and advocates fear is untested.
The CBC leaders are up in arms that the Senate bill eliminates the diversity program while adopting several other visa-related carve-outs — including new benefits for meat cutters and foreign ski instructors.
"So there is some diversity in there!" Edwards quipped, referring to those programs.
Caucus leaders said the authors of the Senate package "buried" those benefits at the end of their 844-page proposal so few would notice them. The ski instructor language appears on page 767; new benefits for "meat, poultry, and fish cutters and trimmers" appear on page 817.
Gutiérrez — among the eight House lawmakers trying to reach a bipartisan immigration deal this year — vowed to examine the Senate carve-outs with diversity visas in mind.
"I'll look at it, I'll look at it!" Gutiérrez said, edging his way down the hall.
The diversity program is a lottery system offering 55,000 visas annually to countries with low immigration rates to the United States. In a typical year, roughly half of them go to African immigrants.
Republicans have tried to eliminate the program in years past, citing concerns about fraud and national security.
The Senate bill would end diversity visas in 2015, replacing them with a new merit-based program that would hinge eligibility on immigrants' education, employment and family ties, among other factors.
The CBC, the NAACP and other black advocacy groups are wary of the switch, fearing that it would reduce the number of African and Caribbean beneficiaries.
"Although assurances have been made that the new 'Merit Based Point System’ would account for diversity, my concern is that it isn’t robust or sustainable enough to adequately protect the future flow of racially and socioeconomically diverse immigrant populations," Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), co-chairman of the CBC's immigration task force, said last week in a statement.
While Gutiérrez and other House negotiators have not revealed how their package would approach diversity visas, CBC leaders are bracing for language similar to the Senate bill.
"I'm hearing that there are provisions of the House bill that will mirror many of the provisions of the Senate bill," Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), another co-chairman of the CBC's immigration task force, told The Hill last week.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has staged three hearings on the Senate's immigration reform package in the last week, and a markup is expected in May.
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), another of the eight House negotiators, said Tuesday that, while conservatives in the House Republican conference have slowed the process, the bipartisan group is "very close" to finalizing its version of immigration reform.
"This group has worked long enough that it will move toward producing a good compromise on a total fix to our immigration system — not a partial fix, not a piece-meal fix, but a total fix," Becerra, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said after the Democrats' meeting.
The group is "being very deliberative," he added, "trying to make sure that whatever we come up with as eight translates into sufficient votes to get a majority in the House of Representatives."