Committee revives debate over green card allocation

Members continue to push legislation that would allow more highly skilled foreign workers into the United States.

Congress has all but given up on passing an immigration policy overhaul this year, but members continue to pin hopes on legislation that would allow more highly skilled foreign workers into the United States.

At a House Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee hearing Thursday, members stressed the importance of separating that issue from the ongoing fight over illegal immigration.

The panel examined ways to keep foreign students who graduate from U.S. universities in science, math, engineering and technology from taking jobs abroad by changing the way the government doles out permanent-resident visas, or green cards.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., have introduced a bill that would eliminate the arbitrary per-country caps for employment-based immigrants and let the Homeland Security and State departments recapture unused green cards to use the following fiscal year.

Goodlatte said the bill would cut the waiting time for those waiting the longest and reduce red tape. U.S. firms do not get as many highly-skilled workers from abroad as they need under to the current visa lottery program, which is based on "pure luck," threatens national security, and encourages a cottage industry for "fraudulent opportunists," he added. While Goodlatte has teamed up with Lofgren on that measure, he slammed a separate measure of hers that would recapture unused green cards older than one year. "That would surely bring with it new complications," Goodlatte said. Another Lofgren plan would create a limitless number of green cards for those studying science and technology "needs careful review," he added.

Lofgren, however, noted that more than half the graduates from U.S. universities with master's degrees and Ph.D.s in science and engineering are foreign-born, and overseas employers are wooing them at a high rate. To address this domestic deficit, the government should encourage those scholars "to work with us rather than compete against us in other countries," she said. Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., said Congress has taken too long to realize that fact, but added that its attention was "better late than never."

Among the witnesses weighing in, Lee Colby, past chairman of the Santa Clara Valley Section of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, said an immigration policy based on green cards "will help America create jobs, maintain its technological competitiveness and achieve success." National Semiconductor Corp. Senior Vice President Edward Sweeney also urged lawmakers to pass comprehensive immigration legislation this year. But Center for Immigration Studies Executive Director Mark Krikorian, whose group backs stricter immigration standards, argued that the workers in question "aren't really that highly skilled, and the 'need' for them has little to do with the national interest and much to do with firms seeking cheaper and more compliant workers."