Speeches

Mr./Madam President, I rise again today to speak about the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act – an important and bipartisan piece of legislation, which passed the House in July by an overwhelming vote of 365-65.

As I have explained in this chamber before, the concept of the bill is simple. Our current method for allocating green cards caps the total number of green cards that nationals of a given country can receive. In practice, this results in de facto country-of-origin discrimination. Because immigrants from countries with large populations are restricted to receiving the same number of visas as immigrants from smaller countries, their wait times have ballooned, in some cases stretching on for literally decades.

And I repeat, this happens for absolutely no reason other than the country the immigrant happened to be born in. Let’s say two immigrants – one from India and one from Germany – with the exact same skills, degree, and experience apply at the same hour of the same day for an employment-based green card. The German might wait 12 months to receive a green card, while the Indian will almost certainly wait a decade or more.

This kind of system is antithetical to American values and the interest our country has in recruiting the best and the brightest from around the world, irrespective of race, religion or country of origin.

It is unacceptable that in 2019 our immigration system still contains country-of-origin discrimination as a defining feature. The per-country caps must go.

The backlog inflicts unnecessary suffering on law-abiding immigrants

The harm inflicted by any kind of invidious discrimination, whether it be race, sex, or country-of-origin, does not exist in the abstract. The human suffering caused by it are real and heartbreaking.

Although in the short time I have I cannot come anywhere close to doing justice to all of the people who have been and are being harmed by the per-country cap system, I would like to share at least some of their stories.

Agna Hingu (Ugh-Na Heen-Ghu) is a registered nurse in South Jordan, Utah, currently working at a non-profit healthcare organization. She received her bachelor’s degree in this country, and has lived here for the past 10 years. Languishing in the decade’s long backlog, she is now being forced to consider leaving the United States due to the continuous uncertainty of her immigration status and the incessant renewals of temporary visas. If she leaves, she will take her talents and training with her, depriving Utah residents of a smart, skilled, and caring nurse.

Ashish Patel (Aw-sheesh Paw-tel) first came to Utah legally in 2005 on a temporary high-skilled work visa. Since that time, he has worked hard at his job, paid taxes, followed the law, got married, and had two kids, both of whom were born American citizens. In February of 2011, Mr. Patel’s petition to earn a green card was approved. Despite this, his green card remains unissued because of the per-country caps. He is still in the backlog even as immigrants from other countries who applied years after he did have already been granted permanent resident status. If Mr. Patel had immigrated from any country in the world other than India he would already have his green card today.

Dr. Chaitanya Mamillapalli (Chay-tone-ya Muh-mee-la-pulley) is an endocrinologist who has been serving a central Illinois community for the past 9 years. He came to the United States in 2007. Despite studying and living in the country for over 12 years, he will likely not recieve his green card for at least another decade. His daughter was one year old when she came with her parents to this country. In a few years, she will age out of her temporary visa, and Dr. Mamillapalli will face a decision that confronts many people stuck in the backlog community: does he separate from his daughter as she loses her temporary status, or does he abandon his life in the US to keep his family together.

Dr. Priya Shanmugam (Pree-ya Shun-mug-gum) lives in Louisiana and is an aerospace engineer who studied at the University of Alabama and UCLA. She dreams of working for NASA. After 13 years in the backlog, she is still waiting for a green card. As a result, she cannot fulfil her dream of joining America’s space program and helping put the first person on Mars. Until she finally gets her Green Card, our country will continue to lose out on her talent.

Dr. Krishnendu Roy (Krish-nen-doo Roy) is a Professor of Computer Science and Head of the Department of Computer Science at Valdosta State University in Georgia. He studied for his degree in Louisiana and has lived in the United States for over 16 years. During that time, he has shaped the lives of countless students in Georgia through the classes he teaches, by organizing computing camps for K-12 students, and by mentoring the robotics team in his community. He has followed the law and done exactly what is required of him under our immigration system in order to receive a green card. Yet he remains stuck in the backlog with no end to his wait in sight.

Dr. Sri Obulareddy is an oncologist working just outside Dickinson, North Dakota, who came to the United States in 2006. She moved to North Dakota because the area is experiencing a shortage of specialized physicians. Her impact on the community has been invaluable. Recently, she tried to return from a trip to India, but approval for her visa was delayed for six weeks, forcing her patients to travel as far as 100 miles as they scrambled to find a temporary physician. The pain this caused her patients would never have happened if she hadn’t been subjected an arbitrary cap based on her country of origin and had already received her green card.

Ash Kannan (Ash Kuh-nun) lives in Oklahoma. His story is a heartbreaking example of the devastating effects the long wait for a green card can have on a family. Ash and his wife lost their toddler son to a congenital disease about three years ago. The illness that took their son could have been treated had they been able to move to a different home closer to the medical facility that provided the needed treatment. But they were unable to do so – and their son was thus unable to receive the care he required – because Ash was forced to remain with the same employer while he waited in the green card backlog, and consequently was unable to move.

These are just some of the names and some of the stories of the people – hard working, law abiding immigrants – who have come to the United States to build a life and contribute to our communities, but who have been told that, because of the country they were born in, they have to wait decades in the green card backlog before they can start living the American Dream.

These stories should stir us to action. They should remind us that, while policymaking is often a messy and complicated business, it sometimes is simple and straightforward. Sometimes the solution to our problems is clear and beyond question. In those cases, all we need is the will to act.

I have yet to hear someone offer a reasoned defense of the per-country caps as meritorious or sound public policy on their own terms. And that’s because there is no such defense. Country-of-origin discrimination, whether it be in our immigration system, in our justice system, in the employment context, or in housing, is wrong and inconsistent with the values this country was founded on. It becomes even more repugnant when its human consequences are as obvious and tragic as they are here.

The Grassley amendment

I understand and recognize that, while the per-country caps themselves are indefensible, some people have concerns about how eliminating the caps might impact fraud and abuse in the H-1B system.

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.

These are important and worthy reforms that I was proud to add to the bill. Indeed, we saw an example just last month of the positive impact these reforms would have. In September, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced a $2.5 million settlement with an Indian consulting firm for H-1B visa fraud. That firm was exploiting the so-called “B-1 in lieu H-1B” loophole. One of the new provisions we added to the bill this Congress would help close that specific loophole.

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. They are also modelled in large part on an amendment to the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants act that Senator Schumer negotiated with Senator Grassley in a previous Congress.

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 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

The Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act presents a golden opportunity for meaningful, bipartisan reform

As I have said in the past, there is no question that immigration is one of, if not the most politically fraught issues in Congress right now. 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.

Unquestionably, there are broader debates on immigration policy being had in Congress and across the country right now. Some wish to reform our immigration system by increasing the number of green cards we issue, while others wish to move to a more merit-based system. That debate is almost certainly not going to be resolved today, this month, this year, or even during this Congress.

Notably, however, many Senators on both sides of that debate – ardent champions of both liberal and conservative immigration reforms, who ordinarily could not be farther apart when it comes to immigration policy – are co-sponsors of the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act.

The reason for this is that they recognize that, regardless of what else we do to reform our immigration system, country-of-origin discrimination is inconsistent with our values and is a problem we can solve right now.

The other reason the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act has been so successful in attracting support from both sides of the aisle is because we have scrupulously avoided the typical poison pills that so often doom attempts at immigration reform.

This bill is not comprehensive immigration reform. It is not even close to being that. And that is in fact why this bill is something that we can actually get done now.

While it does not fix many of the other flaws that plague our broken immigration system, it is a great and important start to reform. If we are to ever have a chance at modernizing and repairing our immigration laws, we need to recognize that we cannot necessarily solve all our problems at once. The fact that this is the case should not stand in our way of us starting the work the American people sent us here to do.