Although funding for the Department of Homeland Security has been settled (with Republicans once again learning the folly of taking a hopeless position) the need for bipartisan solutions to immigration reform remains. A good first step would be for the new Republican majorities in Congress to pass a bill expanding the number of H-1B visas, allowing more skilled people to come to our shores.

Immigration reform is needed for at least three reasons: the United States cannot expect to reassert control over its immigration policy until we resolve the status of those here illegally in a way that does not encourage future illegal migration; expanded legal migration is important to both economic growth and national security; and immigration by people with high-value skills can boost national productivity.


Unfortunately, the prospects for immigration reform have dimmed. Shortly after losing the Senate and seeing the House tip even more Republican, President Obama issued an executive order providing work permits and protection from deportation for some 4 million immigrants. The President justified this unilateral action by declaring that the chances for comprehensive immigration legislation are effectively dead. Democrats could with some justification point to a lack of any clear movement in the House of Representatives as proof of this assertion.

Although a federal District Court judge has temporarily blocked the president’s order from taking effect pending a determination of its constitutionality, many Republicans feel the need to respond to what they see as a clear abuse of executive power. Unfortunately, the public is unlikely to side with any use of extreme measures such as shutting down the government. A smarter strategy would be to use the president’s focus on immigration to pass a provision that already has broad bipartisan support.

H-1B visas allow domestic companies to bring in talented employees from abroad in order to perform specialized skills that are in short supply domestically. The visas also allow global companies to integrate their international staffs by moving them physically to whatever projects they are temporarily working on. The annual number of visas is currently limited to 65,000 plus an exemption of 20,000 for people with advanced degrees. This is far less than is needed. Last year it took less than one week to hit the visa cap. Over the year, the government received 124,000 applications.

Expanding the number of H-1B visas is important to domestic companies who want to be able to bring their best people in to work on projects here. In addition, these high-skilled people complement the U.S. workforce, boosting domestic productivity. If these workers eventually decide to stay in the United States, they further add to the strength of our economy. That is why increasing the H-1B cap on is a common element of major proposals to increase economic growth and national competitiveness.

A number of Democrats in both the House and the Senate have expressed their support for increasing the number of visas. Yet this support has often been conditioned on the passage of comprehensive immigration reform. With the President having declared comprehensive reform dead, this rationale no longer holds. The thinking was that resolution of the broader issues was necessary to attract the support of labor and other groups. But given the President’s executive orders, these members now have less reason than ever to vote for an increase in H-1B visas. The choice is therefore between adding an increase in H-1B visas to the partial reforms already put in place by the President or deferring the issue to an indefinite future. A Senate vote to end a filibuster on a clean H-1B visa bill would let the business community see where Democrats really stand on the issue. Republican support for such a bill would demonstrate to the White House that they are willing to act on at least some immigration issues.

President Obama has already expressed support for increasing the number of H-IB visas. When faced with a clear opportunity to do so with the stroke of a pen, he would have a hard time issuing a veto. Such an action would further call into question his support for broader reform and would anger the business community, for whom an increase in H-1B visas is an important issue and which feels that its priorities were not only neglected but undercut by the President’s executive action.

If Republicans want to govern in 2016 they need to show that they can do more than obstruct. And if Democrats want to extend the President’s actions beyond the two years remaining in his term, they will have to show a willingness to reengage on other reform issues. Authorizing a doubling or even tripling of H-1B visas and allowing the spouses of visa holders to also work in the United States (the Administration already supports this proposal for spouses of H-1B visa holders who are seeking a green card) would move the debate forward while leaving the constitutionality of the President’s executive action to the courts.

Kennedy is a senior fellow with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and former chief economist for the U.S. Department of Commerce.