Competition bill could carry high-skilled immigration changes

Lawmakers open to including the provisions in final plan

Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., inside the U.S. Capitol last November.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., inside the U.S. Capitol last November. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 23, 2022 at 6:04pm

Following the advancement of legislation to shore up U.S. global competitiveness, senators expressed optimism the bill could serve as a bipartisan vehicle for long-awaited changes to the legal immigration system.

The Senate voted Wednesday to move forward with resolving differences between its bill and the House-passed version. Both measures would provide funds to boost American manufacturing and scientific research to better compete with China and other global powers.

Chief among those differences are a slate of immigration provisions added by the House that would create a new visa category for entrepreneurs. They also would exempt foreign citizens with doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM fields, from annual green card limits.

These limits have pushed foreign-born graduates of American universities out of the country and kept professionals from populous nations like India and China waiting more than a decade for green cards to become available.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., a vocal proponent of efforts last year to pass a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, said he would support including the House-passed immigration provisions in the final version of the competition bill, citing workforce shortages in key industries.

He and other colleagues, including those in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, “are pursuing every opportunity that we have to make progress on immigration reform,” he said Wednesday.

“I'm certainly hopeful that the Senate is open to those provisions,” Luján said. “It still doesn't solve everything, and it still doesn't solve the challenge associated with those specific visas. But it makes progress, and it's forward-looking from a workforce perspective.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., one of 13 co-sponsors on the Senate’s competition bill, also said Wednesday she would support the House’s immigration additions, highlighting the challenges universities face in retaining foreign-born graduates under the current immigration scheme.

The immigration provisions could even garner support from some Senate Republicans, who have historically refused to support other efforts at immigration changes without significant increases in border security funding.

“If there’s broad support for the provisions, then I’m absolutely open to including it,” said Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., another co-sponsor on the Senate bill. “More broadly in terms of skills-based immigration reform, I think it’s essential to maintaining our national competitiveness.”

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Judiciary Committee that has jurisdiction over immigration matters, said he was “certainly open” to the House-passed immigration provisions on high-skilled visas.

He cautioned, however, against adding materials that could bog down the bill as the two versions are reconciled, thwarting its chances of passing.

“That’s been our history. So I support targeted bills where there is common ground,” he said Wednesday.

Immigration measures have historically struggled to garner broad bipartisan support in Congress; the Senate version of the competition bill passed with more Republican support than the House bill did.

“What's really important is getting this thing across the finish line, because this is a national security issue,” Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., another co-sponsor, said when asked about his support for the immigration additions.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a bill co-sponsor and the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, said he had not yet reviewed the House’s immigration provisions but warned his colleagues to “be careful and not overload this bill.”

Baldwin struck a similar tone: “What I've told leadership is, just get something through. Get something that everybody can agree on, and pass it through.”

Bipartisan efforts revived

If the House-passed immigration provisions survive the conference process between the two chambers, it could pave the way for significant immigration changes to be signed into law for the first time in decades.

In addition to the proposed changes for entrepreneurs and doctorates in STEM fields, the House-passed bill would establish deportation protections for Hong Kong residents who fear persecution by Chinese authorities and give residents of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region second-priority refugee status.

Senate Democrats attempted last year to pass legislation that would put millions of undocumented immigrants on a path to permanent residency through the reconciliation process, which would allow filibuster-proof legislation.

However, those efforts have stalled amid intraparty disagreements, and Senate Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin has indicated party leaders are unlikely to try again this year.

But on Wednesday, Durbin, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, and Cornyn both said they had restarted bipartisan talks with each other to identify immigration bills where they have “common ground.”

“I don’t know if this is the right vehicle,” Durbin said of the competition and innovation bill, “but I’ve talked to Sen. Cornyn about a bipartisan conversation.”