The amended Senate “Gang of Eight” immigration bill yesterday passed 13-5 out of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- but not before concessions were made by Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Charles Schumer (D-NY) reached an agreement on certain provisions for high-skilled labor.
Now the bill moves forward, with significant bipartisan support from the Committee, to the full Senate for their consideration, and then hopefully to a vote. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said this bill will be first up for debate when Senators return from their Memorial Day break, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) vowed that Republicans would not block the immigration bill from the floor.
In a statement on Tuesday night, President Obama thanked “the leadership of Chairman Leahy and a bipartisan group of eight Senators,” and said that “the legislation...is largely consistent with the principles of commonsense reform I have proposed and meets the challenge of fixing our broken immigration system.”
Since the proposal was first released last month, over 300 amendments -- offered by Republicans and Democrats -- were submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration. The Committee debated over 100 and has done a great job of making the bill better where necessary, but also rejecting efforts to severely restrict legal immigration, which would impede the ability to meet workforce needs. Moreover, this mark-up process is essential in giving everyone a stake in the final product as it moves through the approval process.
Focusing on the high-skilled sections of the bill, a host of amendments have been approved, and two were approved unanimously: an amendment by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) to help participants in startup accelerators obtain INVEST visas, and Senator Leahy’s amendment to permanently authorize the EB-5 visa program. The program lets a private entity or state apply to become an approved regional center, and then propose development projects for immigrant investors.
Looking at the H-1B system, the efforts of Senator Hatch were particularly noteworthy; his amendment, agreed upon late in the deliberations, increases the minimum number of high-tech H1-B visas allowed annually -- but it does so without accounting for domestic economic conditions. On the issue of fraud within the system, the broad bill requires employers filing visa petitions to first offer a job to an “equally qualified” U.S. worker, but in another amendment from Senator Hatch yet to be debated, this requirement would only be imposed on “H-1B-dependent” companies.
On student visas and funding for education, the committee adopted an amendment from Senator Grassley (R-IA) to improve the student and exchange visitor visa programs, and a further amendment from Senator Hatch to put the labor certification fee towards “improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education and training in the United States.”
Late in the day, still trying to get the bill to the floor, Senators Leahy and Schumer were forced to agree with dissenting members of the committee to hold off on adding an amendment that would have allowed certain provisions for same-sex couples. As a result of this, and other compromises, Committee members and other Senators know the bill is not perfect, but it is the best shot at fixing our broken immigration system. And with deals already being made between supporters and those who had previously been detractors as part of the full Senate markup process, it’s clear that Senate leadership on both sides of the aisle is looking for a process which swiftly and judiciously moves the bill to a vote.
Last night’s developments are good news for those of us fighting for reform, but now is the time to step on the gas. The need for pressure on Senators to pass this bill and keep moving towards fixing our broken system is real, and it is immediate.
In league with organizations from across the political spectrum, including Organizing for Action, Consumer Electronics Association, Voto Latino, Silicon Valley Leadership Group and many more, Engine and March For Innovation are launching two days of initiatives across the Internet. Stay tuned to Engine for more news about the March, and what we’ll be doing afterwards as well. Join the March, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, and keep working. Your voices can tilt this debate, help guarantee the bill’s passage, and go a long way towards protecting innovation and building an immigration system that works here in America.
Photo courtesy of Talk Radio News Service.