At 78, Grassley—a plainspoken conservative with a penchant for sweater vests—has spent almost half his life in Congress. He supported President Reagan’s 1986 immigration-reform law, which, by giving amnesty to undocumented workers and increasing enforcement and sanctions, was billed as the solution to illegal immigration. Like many Republicans who supported that law, he now feels he was sold a bill of goods.
“You know what I found out? You reward illegality and you get more of it,” Grassley said in his Senate office. “So that’s why I can’t be for amnesty again, or somebody’s going to say, ‘Grassley, can’t you learn from your mistakes?’ And I can learn from my mistakes.”
The Iowan doesn’t object in principle to removing per-country green-card quotas. Rather, he wants to use Chaffetz’s bill for his own purposes—to reform the guest-worker visa system that companies use to bring high-skilled foreign workers into the country temporarily. The program has problems with fraud: 20 percent of the so-called H-1B visas issued do not meet the law’s criteria, he said, citing a 2008 Homeland Security Department report. Slots that are supposed to go to individuals with specialized training are instead being used as a gateway for low-skilled workers.
“It’s the only immigration bill that’s going to be around for two years. So if you want to get some reforms, you take every opportunity you can to take an immigration bill and [fix] other things wrong with immigration.” —Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, on the Chaffetz bill
With comprehensive immigration reform long dead, Grassley has taken his fight on visa fraud to the only immigration bill moving this year—H.R. 3012.
He is not the only one looking to add a little something to the bill. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the Immigration Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wants to tack on a special visa category for Irish nationals. Schumer is not Irish, but he represents a lot of Ireland partisans. He argues that the Irish have been waiting patiently, like everyone else, for a broad immigration overhaul that would give them more opportunities to come to the U.S. The European country that sent some 3 million immigrants to America after the 1845 potato famine now feels slighted for being left out of special visa categories created under free-trade agreements for others, such as Chile and Singapore.
Trying to determine exactly how the popular Chaffetz proposal got mired in this mess is like chasing an earring down a sink drain. To sum up:
• Grassley says he is willing to lift his hold on H.R. 3012 if Schumer backs off his Irish-visa proposal.
• Schumer says that Democrats aren’t the holdup; it’s actually a Republican, Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who shot his mouth off to a bunch of Irish constituents back home, saying that the Irish-visa bill was “about to pop.” Massachusetts—where Brown expects a tough reelection fight—is the hub of the Ireland lobby.
• Brown says he has not placed a hold on the Chaffetz proposal and supports it in principle. But he also wants the Irish-visa bill to pass, and he won’t say whether he would block the Chaffetz bill if the Irish measure doesn’t move with it.
• Grassley, meanwhile, has offered Schumer a chance for an up-or-down vote on the Irish-visa bill, provided the required skill levels get tweaked and the special-visa program has an end date. There’s no word yet on whether Schumer will accept the offer.
And so, H.R. 3012 sits.
“It’s the only immigration bill that’s probably going to be around for two years,” Grassley said, “so if you want to get some reforms, you take every opportunity you can to take an immigration bill and [fix] other things that are wrong with immigration.”
Grassley’s tactic is exactly what makes passing small, targeted legislation so tough. Pretty soon, a simple, six-page bill is loaded down with pet projects that make it impossible to pass muster. “I’m only adding one thing,” he said. “Anybody trying to add anything to any other bill, you know what you call them? U.S. senator—because that’s what the Senate’s all about. No limit on debate. It’s the deliberating body. Anybody can bring up anything.”
SOMEBODY ELSE’S PROBLEM
The slow walk of the Chaffetz bill in the Senate infuriates leaders in the technology sector, whose companies depend on high-skilled labor. Asked about the legislation, the president of TechNet, which represents the nation’s top tech CEOs, sputtered in frustration.
“That bill,” Rey Ramsey said before pausing and starting over. “I’m trying to calm myself, because it’s just stunning the partisanship and ineffectiveness to be able to move something that’s so important for the economy.”
In February, about 40 senior TechNet executives spent a day on Capitol Hill meeting with Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate. They left exasperated. “When you sum up the CEOs’ sentiments, it was a frustration at fingers being pointed and not a clear-enough glide path for reso-lution,” Ramsey said. “This is an unacceptable and unsustainable way to do the country’s business.”