The American public also approves of skilled immigrants, even in the midst of the highly charged rhetoric that surrounds the recent wave of harsh state laws modeled on Arizona’s tough immigration-enforcement law. Last year, a global poll on attitudes about immigration from the German Marshall Fund found that 63 percent of U.S. respondents believed their country should let in more immigrants with a high level of education. By contrast, only 36 percent said that the United States should let in more immigrants with low education levels.
The only legislation that might help ClassDojo’s founders—a White House-backed bill that would grant a two-year visa for entrepreneurs who have lined up a U.S. investor—has no prospect of passage. It goes without saying that any large-scale effort to reform the nation’s immigration laws is doomed in the current atmosphere. The last major public push, in 2007, fell short.
During the previous Congress, a group of House Democrats and Republicans negotiated a new, sweeping reform bill in secret, but it has never seen the light of day. The issue is so radioactive on the Hill that the proposed bill was watermarked to keep its contents from getting out and the identities of the negotiators hidden. And once a wave of tea party conservatives helped shift control of Congress back to the GOP, that was the end of any hope for a deal.
“The political climate made it impossible to move forward,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who helped negotiate the bill. Sworn to secrecy, she won’t give up the name of a single Republican involved in the talks.
Lofgren, however, found common ground with Republicans on a small-scale measure that aims to ease the path to citizenship for some high-skilled workers like Chaudhary and Don—and it happens to be the only piece of legislation that’s showing any signs of life. H.R. 3012 is a simple, bipartisan bill that would shorten the wait times for work visas for people from countries that generate large numbers of engineers and scientists. It’s nowhere near the size and lacks the complexity of past immigration-reform packages that sparked nationwide protests. Yet despite the bill’s modest goals and widespread support, Congress still is struggling to move it.
The bill, termed the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, would remove per-country quotas on work visas. Under the current system, Iceland—a small country not known for producing highly skilled workers bound for the U.S.—gets allotted the same number of visas as China. The legislation would not add to the overall number of available green cards, but it would ease the immense backlogs for applicants from India and China, home to most of the superskilled immigrants. Some face waits of up to 70 years while they languish in the United States on an endlessly renewing loop of temporary work visas. They can’t change jobs or vote, and their spouses can’t work.
The idea for the bill originated with Lofgren, but she needed a Republican in the House to back it. Enter Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a 44-year-old GOP rising star, who introduced H.R. 3012 on Sept. 22. There was some irony here. Chaffetz represents Utah’s 3rd Congressional District, one of the most conservative in the country. In 2008, he unseated a 12-year incumbent in a scrappy Republican primary by portraying him as soft on immigration. Then-Rep. Chris Cannon had supported legislation to give undocumented immigrants the chance to earn citizenship. To defeat him, Chaffetz adopted what is now the Republican mantra: opposition to “amnesty” in any form.
Chaffetz said he signed onto the bill because he wants to help businesses do something about their immigration woes. It’s about as far he can go in easing the citizenship path for some foreigners. He isn’t sanctioning amnesty or adding to the overall numbers of immigrants, and it’s a bill crafted to pass the most divided of bodies. “There are some basic, simple fixes that we could put in place,” Chaffetz told National Journal from his hometown of Alpine. “The people that are most concerned about the immigration issue, they don’t want to see a net increase in the number of people.”
The legislation sailed through the House on a 389-15 vote. It passed on a Tuesday evening, under a procedure reserved for minor bills like naming post offices or congratulating Super Bowl champions. The vote barely made news in a week marked by reports of Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Barney Frank’s retirement and a controversial bill to rein in the National Labor Relations Board. None of the top House leaders—Republican or Democrat—issued congratulatory statements, even though the measure marked a rare moment of agreement on immigration policy. Their thoughts were in a thousand other places.
CHASING AN EARRING
As soon as the bill left the House, it ran smack into Sen. Chuck Grassley. The Iowa Republican almost immediately put a hold on the bill, a procedural maneuver that allows senators to essentially block legislation from being debated on the floor.