The House measure to expand the number of family visas for relatives of U.S. residents hoping to make the U.S. home is expected to benefit, among others, Mexicans, who often wait roughly 10 years for permission to live here.
Under a measure approved by the House Tuesday, with a 389-15 vote, family-based visa limits rise from 7 percent per country to 15 percent per country, an adjustment that could slightly ease the backlog for naturalized citizens, particularly from Mexico and the Philippines, trying to bring relatives into the United States.
The majority of immigrants in the United States are admitted through family-based visas. Mexicans account for about 30 percent of the U.S. immigrant population – that includes Mexicans of all immigration status – and nearly all Mexicans who are granted U.S. permanent residency, known casually as having a "green card," are admitted into the country on family-based visas.
Almost 60 percent of Mexicans admitted into the United States were immediate relatives sponsored by U.S. citizens, about 35 percent were non-immediate relatives.
Immediate relatives of a U.S. citizens include a spouse, unmarried children under 21 years of age, or the parent of someone who is at least 21. Visas for these categories typically are not subject to caps.
So-called family preference immigrant visas are subject to caps, and that can affect the length of time between the day a U.S. citizen or U.S. resident submits a petition for admission to the United States, and the day that person ultimately may get admitted. These visas are subject to caps, and are the ones that would change under the House bill, which next will go to the Senate for a vote.
These visas cover such relatives as sons and daughters, over the age of 21, of U.S. citizens; spouses and minor children of legal U.S. permanent residents; and brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, among others.
The legislation was hailed by people on different sides of the immigration debate as 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 also would eliminate the current law that says employment-based visas to any one country can't 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.
“This will significantly shorten the wait for the people in the family queues,” said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of small business owners working for changes in immigration laws.
“The Republicans were keen on helping skilled workers, but Republicans knew they needed Democrat support for the bill," Jacoby said. "The Democrats said ‘O.K., but do something for [immigrant] families.’ This shows that when they try, the two parties can actually work together.”
That change in worker-based immigration visas is expected to benefit skilled Indian and Chinese residents seeking to stay in the United States and the high-tech companies who hire them.
The bill, said its sponsor, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, "does encourage high-skilled immigrants who were educated in the U.S. to stay and help build our economy rather than using the skills they learned here to aid our competitor nations."
Currently, the State Department issues about 140,000 such green cards a year to foreign nationals working in the United States, often after getting degrees from U.S. universities.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who heads the Senate Judiciary panel on immigration, said he planned to move the bill as quickly as possible in the Senate, "where we expect it to find overwhelming support."
He 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 applauded Congress for showing it can act.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said that while the bill won't 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 does "demonstrate that Congress can do something on immigration, however small."
She 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.
But Compete America, a group representing high-tech companies such as Google and Microsoft Corp. and research institutes, said the bill would correct a problem in which very small countries are subject to the same 7 percent cap as large countries such as India and China, which account for more than 40 percent of the world's population.
The lengthy waiting periods for people trained and working in the United States "are contributing to a reverse brain drain in the U.S. 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.
U.S. employers are prohibited under law from hiring foreign workers unless they show there are not sufficient U.S. workers willing and able to take the jobs.
At a time of high unemployment in the United States, is there a downside to easing admission into the United States for foreign nationals to work here?
No, says Jacoby.
“Immigrants create jobs,” she said. “Skilled immigrants who invent products and start new businesses create jobs for Americans. Even unskilled immigrants, who are not helped by this bill, help [the economy] because, if your restaurant can serve lunch and dinner because you have enough workers, it brings more customers.”
This story contains material from The Associated Press.