Immigration committee examines skilled versus unskilled workers

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Members of the House Judiciary Committee showed a sharp partisan divide during a hearing on immigration Tuesday that sometimes seemed to pit high-skilled foreign workers against illegal immigrants and those admitted to the U.S. through family ties.

A big portion of the hearing — the first on immigration this year — focused on temporary H-1B visas for science and technology workers.

Citing a shortage of qualified American engineers and programmers, Microsoft has been leading aggressive lobbying efforts to lift the cap on such foreign hires as well as for green cards allowing them to stay permanently.

Many members of the panel expressed strong support for creating more slots for high-tech talent. But Democrats largely swatted down Republicans’ suggestions to tackle that issue separately from possible citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants and other thornier aspects of comprehensive immigration reform being debated in Congress.

“If we got the skilled-labor part done first, do you think we would ever come behind it and finish the job?” asked Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La.

Despite Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s opening remark that “America is a nation of immigrants,” it quickly became clear the Virginia Republican and his fellow conservatives are not ready to embrace wide amnesty for those who entered the country without permission or overstayed their visas.

“Are there options we should consider between the extremes of mass deportation and a pathway to citizenship?” Goodlatte asked.

Some of the Democrats argued that allowing in more high-skilled workers needn’t impact immigration by less-educated foreigners. Goodlatte said only about one in 10 legal immigrants to the United States are chosen for education and skills, while that figure is closer to 60 percent for Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.

Last year, the Republican-controlled House passed a bill to eliminate 55,000 green cards available each year in a “diversity lottery” for workers with at least a high-school degree from low-immigration countries. The slots would be reallocated to foreigners with an advanced degree in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) from top-tier American universities, with doctorate holders in line before master’s graduates.

Microsoft had proposed setting aside 20,000 extra green cards for STEM workers from an existing pool of unused ones.

Vivek Wadhwa, director of research at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University, told the lawmakers that immigrants are highly entrepreneurial and responsible for a disproportionate share of startups in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

Wadhwa said opening the door to more well-educated foreigners can only benefit the U.S. economy “because the pie gets bigger.”

Michael Teitelbaum, former vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, offered some caution.

The commission, which operated between 1991 and 1997, concluded that promoting immigration by high-skilled foreigners was in Americans’ interest because it made the country more competitive. However, Teitelbaum said, the shortage of STEM workers doesn’t exist everywhere, and the influx of overseas workers should be tailored to the labor situation.

What’s more, most employers are not required to prove a lack of qualified American applicants for the job. And experiences with temporary-guest-farm workers, he said, showed they can be vulnerable to exploitation and help depress wages for U.S. workers.