The House voted Tuesday 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.
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 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.
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.
The bill also changes family-based visa limits 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 country.
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 He said the legislation would "remove outdated constraints that prevent us from attracting the kind of innovators who can create job growth in America."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.