Political and Economic Case for Immigration Reform: Immigration reform has suddenly reappeared on the national agenda in Washington following the November elections. President Obama listed comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) as one of the top priorities for his second term. Previous attempts at CIR failed due to political opposition to a legalization process for persons in the U.S. without authorization; however, the election results have raised concern among many Republicans that opposition to CIR may have cost them the presidency. Many Republicans and conservative thought leaders are now pushing the GOP to improve relations with the growing Latino demographic by supporting immigration reform legislation. Both parties agree that immigration reform would be beneficial for sustained economic growth.

Proposed Legislation: The STEM bill would create a new category of 55,000 green cards allotted annually to foreign students earning masters and doctoral degrees in STEM fields from U.S. universities. A similar bill failed in September 2012 because it included the elimination of the 55,000 green cards granted each year through the Diversity Visa program. Democrats in the House sought to retain the Diversity Visa program. The new bill would also eliminate the Diversity Visa program, but it would include a provision allowing family members of green card holders to live in the U.S. while waiting for their green cards to be issued. They could come to the U.S. one year after applying for their green card and wait for the issuance of the green card inside the U.S. Under the current system, family members have had to wait two to six years outside the U.S. The new vote will require only a majority vote, so it could pass the Republican House. The prospects for success are not clear in the Senate where Democrats hold the majority.

Renewed Discussion of CIR: The proposed STEM vote this week comes in the context of renewed discussion on the economic and political necessity of CIR. CIR is generally considered to include some combination of the following components:

  • Some form of legalization for undocumented workers
  • Creation of a new worker visa category for lesser-skilled positions to avoid future buildup of undocumented workers
  • Stronger border security and interior enforcement
  • Stronger employment verification system to ensure only authorized persons can work

There was a significant push for CIR in President George W. Bush's second term, but it failed in 2007. Candidate Barack Obama promised in 2008 to promote CIR, but this did not happen in his first term due to Republican opposition and focus on the economic crisis and health care reform. But with President Obama's re-election and the GOP re-thinking its political strategy, CIR is back on the agenda. The President has said he will push CIR and several Republican leaders have agreed that the issue must be addressed. A broader push toward CIR will likely start in the Senate after the new Congress convenes in January 2013.

Microsoft National Talent Strategy Proposal: Microsoft has added its voice to the immigration reform discussion with its National Talent Strategy proposal, which seeks to address the long-term and short-term shortage of STEM graduates. The proposal, which is separate from the STEM legislation to be introduced this week in the House, calls for the creation of an annual supplemental category of 20,000 H-1B visa spots for foreign students graduating from U.S. universities with at least a bachelor's degree in a STEM field. Employers would pay an additional fee of $10,000 for each of these H-1B spots. The proposal also calls for the annual recapture of up to 20,000 green card spots that were allocated for prior years but never used. Employers would pay $15,000 for each of these green card spots. The funds generated from the new $10,000 and $15,000 fees would be directed toward improving STEM education for the future U.S. workforce.

Save the Date: Immigration reform legislation will be a key topic at the annual Faegre Baker Daniels Immigration and Global Mobility seminar in Minneapolis on May 7, 2013. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Executive Director for Immigration Policy has been invited to speak at the seminar and will provide an inside-the-Beltway perspective on immigration developments in the new Congress.