Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Republican Chuck Grassley has lifted his hold on H.R. 3012, a bill that eliminates the per-country caps on immigrant work visas, and will presumably expand immigration for highly skilled Indian and Chinese workers.
Grassley, of Iowa, released his hold on July 11, 2012, after adding a provision giving more enforcement authority to the U.S. Department of Labor over H-1B compliance, including the ability to conduct annual audits. The bill is now cleared to make its way through the Senate. President Barack Obama has endorsed it and is waiting to sign the legislation once finalized.
H.R. 3012, dubbed The Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, was passed by a bipartisan landslide vote of 389-15 in the House of Representatives in November 2011. The bill amends the Immigration and Nationality Act to eliminate the per-country caps for employment-based immigrants, which will significantly reduce wait times for Indian and Chinese applicants, but could moderately increase the waiting period for applicants from other countries.
Under the current system, immigrants from an individual country can claim no more than 7 percent of the 140,000 employment green cards issued annually to foreign nationals working in the United States—often after they’ve obtained degrees from U.S. universities. The example often used is that Iceland, a small country not known for producing very many highly skilled workers bound for the U.S., gets allotted the same number of visas as China, which has a large backlog of workers wishing to immigrate to and work in the U.S.
The legislation would not add to the overall number of available green cards, but it would enable U.S. companies to retain more skilled immigrants from countries such as India and China, which have many scientists and technologists eager to work in the U.S. Because of the current per-country cap, Indian and Chinese workers sometimes face decades-long waits for green cards, and many have to return home because they can’t get permanent residency.
Need for STEM
The U.S. Department of Labor claims that out of the 20 fastest growing occupations projected through 2014, 15 of them require significant mathematics or science preparation. The U.S. will have more than 1 million job openings in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields by 2018, and yet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 16 percent of U.S. bachelor’s degrees will specialize in STEM.
In contrast, China and India are producing more and more of the world’s STEM graduates. According to Accenture’s 2011 research report No Shortage of Talent: How the Global Market is Producing the STEM Skills Needed for Growth, 41 percent of all new university degrees awarded in China are in science and engineering, while comparable figures are 13 percent in the U.S.
The number of STEM graduates in the U.S. would need to increase by 20 percent to 30 percent between 2006 and 2016 to meet the country’s projected growth in science and engineering employment alone, the report stated.
Stalled in the Senate
Despite its overwhelming support in the House, the introduction of the bill in the Senate was blocked by Grassley, who threatened to filibuster the bill unless he was permitted to add provisions from his own bill, the H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act, to H.R. 3012 as an amendment. The H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act would require companies recruiting foreign workers on the H-1B and L-1 work visas to “first make a good-faith attempt” to hire American workers, and would prohibit companies from posting “H-1B only” job advertisements. It would give more authority to the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate and detect visa fraud, and establish a method for investigating companies for potential abuse of the visa system.
“When I placed a hold on the bill, I was concerned that the bill did nothing to better protect Americans at home who seek high-skilled jobs during this time of record unemployment,” Grassley said.
“For many years … I have worked on legislation to close the loopholes in the H-1B visa program. Our legislation would ensure that American workers are afforded the first chance to obtain the available high-paying and high-skilled jobs in the United States. It would make sure visa holders know their rights. It would strengthen the wage requirements, ridding the incentives for companies to hire cheap, foreign labor,” he said.
A Deal Is Struck
Grassley and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., have been working for years to reform the H-1B temporary visa program.
Both Durbin and Grassley have said that the H-1B program is rife with fraud, exploits foreign workers, and puts U.S. job seekers at a disadvantage. Grassley had been negotiating with Senate Democrats since the passage of H.R. 3012 in the House about adding his H-1B reform provision to the high-skilled immigration legislation. He lifted his objection to the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act after he struck a deal with Democrats to include enhanced oversight and annual compliance audits to the H-1B program.
“While I couldn’t get everything that was included in the Durbin-Grassley visa reform bill, there is agreement to include in H.R. 3012 provisions that give greater authority to program overseers to investigate visa fraud and abuse,” Grassley said. “Specifically, there will be language authorizing the Department of Labor to better review labor condition applications and investigate fraud and misrepresentation by employers.”
Roy Maurer is a staff writer for SHRM.
Legislation predicted to ease immense backlogs for Indian and Chinese workers