WASHINGTON—The US House of Representatives on Tuesday voted to change family-based visa limits from 7 percent to 15 percent per country, an adjustment that could slightly ease the backlog for naturalized citizens—particularly from the Philippines and Mexico, trying to bring relatives into the country.
The legislation, which passed 389-15, was a rare example of bipartisan accord on immigration, an issue that largely has been avoided during the current session of Congress because of the political sensitivities involved.
The measure would eliminate the current law that says employment-based visas to any one country cannot exceed 7 percent of the total number of such visas given out. Instead, permanent residence visas, or green cards, would be handled on a first-come, first-served basis.
The bill also seeks to end per-country caps on worker-based immigration visas, a move that should benefit skilled Indian and Chinese residents seeking to stay in the United States and the high-tech companies who hire them.
Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz, the sponsor of the bill, said it “does encourage high-skilled immigrants who were educated in the United States to stay and help build our economy rather than using the skills they learned here to aid our competitor nations.”
Currently, the US state department issues about 140,000 such green cards a year to foreign nationals working in the United States, often after getting degrees from US universities.
The bill, if passed into law, would boost the number of Filipinos migrating to the United States.
Filipino immigrants are already the second largest immigrant group after Mexicans, according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI).
Citing US census data and immigration statistics, the MPI said there were 1.6 million immigrants born from the Philippines, a former US colony, in the United States in 2006. Many of them were petitioned by relatives.
The MPI said that almost half (46 percent) of Filipino immigrants resided in California and that over two-thirds were concentrated in five states (California, Hawaii, New York, Illinois and New Jersey).
The Commission on Filipinos Overseas placed the number of Filipinos in the United States in 2009 at 2.88 million, including 2.59 million permanent residents.
Support in Senate
Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, who heads the Senate judiciary panel on immigration, said he planned to move the bill as quickly as possible in the chamber, “where we expect it to find overwhelming support.”
Schumer said the legislation would “remove outdated constraints that prevent us from attracting the kind of innovators who can create job growth in America.”
The Obama administration in its first two years failed in several major efforts to change immigration law, and this year the issue has largely been off the table, with Republicans making clear that anything suggesting amnesty for those in the country illegally would be rejected.
The Chaffetz bill does not change the number of visas being issued, and groups representing immigrants said the bill would do little to resolve pressing immigration issues. However, they praised US Congress for showing it can act.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said that while the bill would not bring significant changes, “we think this is a positive step forward.”
He said it was a good sign that “Republicans and Democrats are actually working on solutions.”
Crystal Williams, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the measure “makes the system a tiny bit fairer and demonstrates that Congress can do something on immigration, however small.”
Williams cited estimates that while someone from England might wait two or three years for a green card, an Indian could conceivably be on the waiting list for decades.
Still, because there will be no increase in visas issued, there will be losers.
Hosin “David” Lee, president of the Korean-American Scientists and Engineers Association, said the bill would force engineers from South Korea to wait an additional two years in their immigration process to get green cards.
Compete America, a group that represents high-tech companies such as Google and Microsoft Corp. and research institutes, said the bill would correct a problem in which countries with very small populations were subject to the same 7-percent cap as countries such as India and China, which account for more than 40 percent of the world’s population.
Reverse brain drain
The lengthy waiting periods for people trained and working in America “are contributing to a reverse brain drain in the United States as frustrated professionals opt to return to their home countries to pursue their professional ambitions,” Kevin Richards, senior vice president of Tech America, which represents the technology industry, said in a letter to lawmakers.
US employers are prohibited under the law from hiring foreign workers unless they show there are not sufficient US workers willing and able to take the jobs.