House Republicans place priority on immigration fix for high-skilled workers

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) did not reveal any clues about whether he favors dealing with comprehensive immigration legislation via a piecemeal fashion or one large bill. 

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The White House and Senate Democrats want to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill, while House Republicans have previously favored passing a series of smaller bills. A bipartisan group of eight senators are crafting a comprehensive immigration bill, but it remains to be seen how the House plans to move forward on the issue.

Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) argued that it would be "a much easier lift" to pass a bill that reforms the immigration system for high-skilled foreign workers, such as engineers and scientists, and voiced support for dealing with the issue in a piecemeal approach.

"I think we could pass a bill that would take that off the table," Bachus said. "We could solve the problem that's putting Americans out of work and allowing other countries to compete and take jobs away from us."

Bachus said high-skilled immigration reform is an issue that both parties agree on and can act on quickly. He argued moving forward on a comprehensive bill would stall the process because it brings in "toxic" issues that divide lawmakers, such as amnesty and finding a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

He called for lawmakers to not let "the more contentious issues" prevent Congress from passing a high-skilled immigration measure in the near-term. 

But Democrats on the committee pushed back against calls to deal with immigration reform through piecemeal efforts.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) argued that Congress should "not fall into the trap of those calling for 'piecemeal' reform" because the existing immigration system is in desperate need of comprehensive overhaul.

While that includes reforming the employment visa system so technology companies can have access to workers they need, Lofgren also emphasized the importance of family-based immigration initiatives.

Lofgren, who represents parts of Silicon Valley, noted that the founders of Google, Yahoo and eBay all came to the U.S. via the family-based system rather than on high-skilled visas.

"I often say I am glad that Google is in Mountain View rather than Moscow. Like eBay, Intel and Yahoo!, Google was founded by an immigrant. But it’s worth noting that none of the founders of these companies came to the U.S. because of their skills," Lofgren said. "Sergey Brin, Jerry Yang, Andy Grove and Pierre Omidyar all came here through our family-based system or because they were refugees or the children of refugees."

She also noted that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) said Congress should commit itself to comprehensive immigration reform in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) said he didn't want to focus exclusively on high-skilled immigration "to the exclusion of the rest of immigration reform."

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro (D) noted that attempts to pass a high-skilled immigration bill failed last year even though it easily passed the House.

The bill did not get taken up in the Senate in part because the upper chamber wanted to move forward on a comprehensive measure this year.

"Probably the better option is to address this comprehensively," Castro said.

But Vivek Wadhwa, vice president of innovation and research at Singularity University, said Congress needs to fix the broken high-skilled immigration system "as soon as possible."

He argued that the tech industry in the U.S. and other countries is undergoing a boom period and "we can't lose time" on addressing the immigration problem for high-skilled workers because it will ultimately effect the U.S. economy.

"America is bleeding talent right now," he said. 

Goodlatte brought attention to the green card backlog that skilled foreign workers and American employers grapple with, noting that they have to wait years for green card petitions to be approved. He questioned what the effect will be on "America's continued economic competitiveness."

Puneet Arora, vice president of Immigration Voice, described his experience with obtaining a green card, which took roughly 15 years.

Arora, a practicing physician, also noted that the H-1B visa program does not allow for skilled foreign workers to move jobs in the U.S. easily. 

"These long periods of limbo and job mobility" is a problem, he said.

Goodlatte suggested that the U.S. should modify the percentage of legal immigrants it accepts based on their education and skills, an argument that was echoed by other Republican members on the panel.

"It is instructive to note that while America selects about 12 percent of our legal immigrants on the basis of their education and skills, the other main immigrant-receiving countries of Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada each select over 60 percent of their immigrants on this basis," Goodlatte said in his opening statements.

Wadhwa recommended that the U.S. should "increase the ratio of skilled immigrants dramatically," but it should also make it easier for skilled workers to bring their families into the country.

Wadhwa and Arora also took issue with the fact that spouses of skilled foreign workers can't work in the U.S., which drives many to leave the country.

"The women in Saudi Arabia have more rights than the spouses of high-skilled workers. They're confined to the home," Wadhwa said. "This is wrong. It has to be fixed.

Michael Teitelbaum, a senior adviser at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, helped work on a report for the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in the 1990s. One of the findings of the report was that bringing more skilled workers into the U.S. is "in the national interest," while admitting more low-skilled workers is not.

"We want immigrants to do well in the U.S. and if they're skilled, they're more likely to prosper," Teitelbaum said.

Goodlatte signaled that the panel's work on immigration reform this year will move slowly and "methodically" to weigh the "pros and cons of each piece."

"Immigration reform must honor both our foundation of the rule of law and our history as a nation of immigrants. This issue is too complex and too important to not examine each piece in detail," Goodlatte said. "We can’t rush to judgment."