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Immigration Boost Sought

Visa Program Gains Steam

A key bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing for enacting a short-term boost in immigration visas by the end of the year, despite the continued lack of consensus for a comprehensive border bill and worries from Hispanic groups that their priorities will be left behind.

A letter from the New Democrats signed by 16 Members to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Monday urged a significant boost to the numbers of visas allowed for tech workers, nurses, agricultural workers and seasonal workers to alleviate a crush of demand from employers. The technology industry in particular has been vocal about its desire to expand the H-1B visa program for highly skilled immigrants. Demand for imported skilled workers far exceeds the allowed supply, so companies and workers must enter a lottery to see if they will be approved.

“This is no way for the world’s economic leader to stay ahead in the race for the world’s best talent,” the letter states, describing the situation as a “crisis.”

The new strategy is a recognition that comprehensive reform isn’t happening any time soon, but the thirst for workers is immediate.

A plan to nearly double the size of the H-1B program was part of the Senate immigration bill that imploded earlier this year. The Senate, meanwhile, already has been moving piecemeal on visas, with amendments offered from Senators in both parties to the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill and the Commerce, Justice and science appropriations bill, with the potential for increased agricultural worker visas to be added to the Senate farm bill.

The Senate also could bring up the DREAM Act, which would grant a path to citizenship for some immigrant students and those who sign up for the military and is a major priority for Hispanic lawmakers. The DREAM Act has bipartisan support but is controversial, with critics tarring it as an “amnesty” bill. An effort to attach it to the Defense authorization bill failed earlier this year.

But the push to add visas for high-tech workers has support even among some House Republicans who had vocally opposed a comprehensive immigration bill as “amnesty.”

House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) was among the 30 Republicans who signed a letter to Pelosi earlier this month calling for cutting red tape so that high-tech companies can get the workers they need.

The Republican letter, without explicitly mentioning the H-1B program, said lawmakers should “find a way to ensure that America continues to attract the best and brightest minds from around the world” and allow companies to do so “without unnecessary delays and waiting periods.”

Kathryn Rexrode, a spokeswoman for Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Republican High-Tech Working Group, said easing restrictions on legal immigration for tech workers has been a priority for several years. “There is bipartisan support for making sure that companies have access to the best and brightest,” she said.

The New Democrats, meanwhile, have already had meetings with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) in which they’ve made it clear that expanding visas is a top priority, and they will meet with House Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.) on Thursday.

Pelosi, meanwhile, is scheduled to talk about immigration strategy with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Wednesday, a leadership aide said.

Pro-immigration groups such as the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy lobby, have concerns about moving forward on expanded guest-worker programs in the absence of comprehensive reform.

“We sent a letter to Speaker Pelosi, saying we were concerned that the House was considering moving forward on an expanded guest-worker program when we haven’t dealt with the 12 million [undocumented] people who are already here,” said Lisa Navarrete, a spokeswoman for La Raza. Navarrete said the group is “neutral” when it comes to the high-tech H-1B visas themselves, but is willing to support some pieces on their own, including help for seasonal agricultural workers and the DREAM Act.

“There are certainly some [Hispanic] Members who do not want to move anything short of comprehensive immigration reform,” the New Democrat staffer said. “They view this as the whole enchilada or nothing because when you start pulling out pieces it weakens the whole coalition.”

Lobbyists who are pushing for specific immigration reforms, especially those in the tech industry, say they plan to use the message of the New Democrats’ letter to urge other Members to take up manageable chunks of the broader immigration agenda.

“I think it recognizes that there is a problem and there needs to be something done quickly. This is an emergency,” said Josh Ackil, a Democratic lobbyist with the Information Technology Industry Council, of the Democrats’ letter. “We commend their leadership in highlighting this problem, and we’ll work with them to ensure we get something short-term this year and continue working with them for long-term solutions.”

The New Democrat aide said the visa expansions could get attached to any number of bills, adding, “It’s just a matter of finding the will within the Caucus that doesn’t offend folks that are looking for a comprehensive approach.”

Kate Ackley and Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.