Dust Flies at Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Non-Immigrant Visa Reform

Published on July 29th, 2011

According to participants at a hearing recently held by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the current employment-based immigration system (H-1B non-immigrant work visas) is dysfunctional. [Senator Chuck Schumer Tries Reviving Immigration Bill, by Carrie Budoff Brown, Politico.com, July 18, 2011]

Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security and ranking member John Cornyn (R-TX) claimed on Tuesday that the solution is simple: issue more visas to overseas workers and automatically attach green cards to the college degrees earned by foreign-born students who graduate from U.S. universities.

Schumer, in his opening remarks, said that instead of sending foreign-born graduates back to their native countries: "We should staple a green card to their diplomas."

Other Senators on the panel including Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) as well as high tech business leaders, university administrators and three mayors (from cities with high refugee populations) quickly agreed. [Senators Push for High Skill Immigration Reform, by Grant Gross, PC World.com, July 26, 2011]

Three panelists, however, made the point that America already has an excess of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) workers, the field of most concern to Schumer.

Sen. Chuck Grassley refuted the idea that there really are labor shortages in   STEM- reliant industries. In his statement, Grassley said: "For years, our country has struggled to find a way forward on immigration reform. Since the debate reached its peak in 2007, our economy has experienced turmoil comparable to the Great Depression. Americans are out of work, families are being foreclosed on, and businesses are suffering. I agree we must do all we can to improve our economic situation. However, I have concerns with the notion that increasing immigration levels and enacting legalization programs is the answer to the current economic downturn."

University of Rochester immigration expert Dr. Ronil Hira supported Grassley’s perspective and indicated that panelists from the employer side exaggerated their job shortage claims. As evidence, Dr. Hira pointed to the high unemployment rate among skilled IT American workers. Dr. Hira added that not only have native-born American tech workers experienced high unemployment rates for sustained periods but that the H-1B visa allows unscrupulous corporations to hire foreign-born engineers at below market salaries.

(Read Professor Hira’s 2009 New York Times op-ed titled Do We Need Foreign Technology Workers?)

The hearing’s most dramatic moment came when Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) debated Microsoft lawyer Brad Smith about the fairness of an employer-driven visa system. As currently structured, American employers pick and chose who they want visas issued to. Sessions favors the Canadian point system method that evaluates education, work experience and specific skill set before awarding a visa.

Panelists argued, without reaching a conclusion, whether revising the visa system should be part of a comprehensive immigration reform amnesty or stand alone legislation.

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