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H-1B, green card work visa bill advances after testy debate

A new work visa reform is heading to the U.S. House floor, following a key committee vote Wednesday. The bill phases out per-country caps on green cards.

The U.S. House Judiciary Committee has approved a bill to make it easier for H-1B workers from India, in particular, to get green cards. Although the Democratic sponsors called the bill bipartisan, debate with Republicans late Wednesday suggested a different story.

This legislation, the Equal Access to Green Cards for Legal Employment (Eagle) Act, also affects employers' use of the H-1B work visa program. Under this bill, employers will provide public notice of new H-1B positions to a Dept. of Labor website, including salary or wage range information, benefits, location and description of the job. 

The bill, which will move on to the House floor, also restricts H-1B employment to no more than half of an employer's workforce, a provision aimed at the heaviest users of the visa, offshore outsourcing firms. The bill doesn't expand the number of H-1B visas or employment-based visas issued per year, but it will reshuffle how green cards are issued. 

"Because of the per-country caps, foreign nationals from some countries must wait decades in the immigrant visa backlog," said Committee Chair Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. "In some instances, the backlog is so long that the promise of a green card is practically illusory." 

Under today's visa rules, no country gets more than 7% of available employment-based green card visas. Most people who obtain green cards first start on a temporary H-1B work visas. About 75% of visa holders are from India and can wait decades for a green card for permanent residency because of the per-country cap. If the per-country cap ends, applicants will be in one long line and the green cards will be distributed first come, first serve.

Congress has tried to get rid of the per-country cap before. In 2019, in a bipartisan 365-65 vote, the House approved a bill to remove the per-country caps, but it didn't advance in the Senate. Although the 2019 bill passed with considerable Republican backing, its members may not be as eager to lend support this time around if their opposition on the Judiciary Committee is a preview of what's ahead.

Republican support cools

"With the way President Biden has mismanaged immigration, we now think that this deserves a much closer review," said U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, at Wednesday's hearing.

One of the amendments that the Republicans unsuccessfully tried to get added would prevent anyone with ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or its military from getting a green card.

"Given the CCP's theft of U.S. intellectual property and sensitive technologies, we're all concerned that this bill will result in adverse consequences to U.S. national security," Jordan said. 

But U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who chairs the immigration subcommittee, said the amendment was unnecessary. She said that existing immigration law excludes Communist party members generally but creates an exception for involuntary members who became part of the party as teens. 

The Chinese Communist Party sees brain drain as a very serious national security threat to them, and our ability to attract and retain talent is an obstacle to their ambitions.
Zoe LofgrenU.S. Rep., D-Calif.

Lofgren cited the recent National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence's 2021 report, which highlighted the country's current skills shortage for AI talent and argued that immigration is important to ensuring the U.S. attracts the best skills.  

"The Chinese Communist Party sees brain drain as a very serious national security threat to them, and our ability to attract and retain talent is an obstacle to their ambitions," Lofgren said. 

Republicans, on the other hand, wanted the Communist immigration ban and some other provisions in the bill, but much of their opposition was based on a broader discontent with the Biden administration and illegal crossings at the southern border. However, there were also signs that there may still be some life to a bipartisan approach.

Lofgren said she is working with U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., on a "bigger reform" of the the H-1B visa program. The two have worked before in prior congresses.

Regarding H-1B work visa reforms, Lofgren cited eliminating the lowest level of prevailing wages used for setting salaries and going to an auction-type system for distributing H-1B visas. In such a system, visas would go to employers who offer the highest pay. 

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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