Mr./Madam President, I rise today to speak about the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act – an important and bipartisan piece of legislation on which I have been proud to partner with Senator Harris.
There is no question that immigration is one of, if not the most politically fraught issues in Congress right now. More often than not, we cannot even agree on what the problems are in our immigration system, let alone how to solve them.
That makes it all the more important for us to at least come together to get something done in those areas where we can find common ground.
The Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act is an important point of common ground.
Employment-based immigration visas – the one significant area of our immigration system based on skills and merit – are currently issued in accordance with per-country quotas. This means that, in a given year, immigrants from any one country cannot, in most cases, be given more than 7% of the total number of visas allocated. As a result, immigrants from nations with large populations have significantly longer wait times to get a green card than immigrants from smaller countries. In some cases, they can be stuck in a backlog of green card petitions for decades.
These per-country caps cause serious problems for American businesses and workers, and unfair hardship for immigrants stuck in the backlog.
While employment-based green cards are supposed to go to immigrants with high skills who will help grow the American economy, the per-country caps distort the system by causing some immigrants to wait years before receiving a green card for a reason totally unrelated to their qualifications. This undermines our ability to bring the best and brightest individuals into our country.
Further, the per-country caps force the immigrants in the backlog – 95% of whom are already in the United States – to make the difficult choice between staying in America, and waiting decades for a green card, or leaving and taking their talents to a country that provides a fairer process for allocating legal immigrant status.
Worse still, because individuals in the green card backlog can only sponsor temporary visas for their children while the children are younger than 21, the per-country caps force families to choose between separating and sending their children back to their country-of-origin as they age out of their visas while the parents keep waiting in the United States for a green card, or to give up entirely on their dreams of becoming lawful permanent residents. In many cases, these are children who legally immigrated with their parents at a young age and who have come to call America home.
Because immigrants in the backlog are also severely limited in their ability to change jobs, the per-country caps often force them to work under conditions that other employees would find unacceptable. This exposes these immigrants to harassment, exploitation, and abuse without any option of switching employers. What’s more, because these employees can’t change jobs, they have less power to negotiate fair salaries, which depresses wages not only for the immigrant workers themselves, but also for their American colleagues.
Fortunately, the solution to these problems is not only straightforward, but agreed upon by a broad, bipartisan coalition of senators. We must eliminate the per-country caps to ensure a fair and reasonable allocation of employment-based green cards. That is exactly what the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act would accomplish.
Without the per-country caps, our skills-based green card system would operate on a first-come, first-serve basis, ensuring that immigrants are admitted into the United States purely based on their merit, rather than their country-of-origin.
This reform would also ensure that the hardships caused by decades-long wait times are eliminated.
Importantly, the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act also contains critical safeguards to ensure that the transition from the per-country cap system to a first-come, first-serve system occurs smoothly and without disrupting existing immigration flows.
Specifically, the bill includes a three year set-aside of green cards for immigrants who are not in the backlog to ensure that they can continue to enter the country as we process backlog petitions.
In addition, it includes an important “do no harm” provision that makes certain that green card applicants who are at the front of the line now will stay at the front of the line and not be faced with new delays as we work through the backlog.
These provisions ensure that we truly are treating all immigrants in the employment-based system fairly.
For many years, this critical legislation was stalled because of the concerns of some members that any reform to the employment-based visa system should be accompanied by new protections against fraud and abuse in the H-1B program.
To address those concerns this Congress, I negotiated an amendment to the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act with Sen. Grassley to include new protections for American workers in how we process applications for H-1B visas.
The amendment does three things. First, the Grassley amendment would strengthen the Department of Labor’s ability to investigate and enforce labor condition application requirements. In addition, it reforms the labor condition application process to ensure complete and adequate disclosure of information regarding the employer’s H-1B hiring practices. Finally, it closes off loopholes by which employers can circumvent the annual cap on H-1B workers.
Importantly, the Grassley amendment – like the underlying bill – consists of provisions that have long enjoyed support from members on both sides of the aisle. They are drawn primarily from an H-1B reform bill that has been championed by both Senator Grassley and Senator Durbin.
I am grateful that Sen. Grassley was willing to come to the table and work in good faith on a reasonable compromise on this bill. I believe the deal we have struck is a fair and even-handed way to address longstanding concerns about our H-1B system while eliminating country-of-origin discrimination in how we allocate skills-based green cards