The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee approved a sweeping immigration reform bill May 21, 2013, voting to send it to the entire Senate for debate.
After five markup sessions and hundreds of amendments offered and debated, the committee approved the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 by a 13-5 vote, leaving it largely intact.
The bipartisan Gang of Eight senators—four Democrats and four Republicans—lived up to their promise to band together to fight off the most serious challenges to the bill, including an amendment by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., that would have given same-sex couples the same legal protections in immigration issues as heterosexual couples.
The vote was able to proceed after a breakthrough compromise was reached on H-1B visas for high-tech workers, after several days of negotiations between Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. The deal relaxes some restrictions on high-tech companies that seek to hire foreign tech workers.
“We commend members of the Senate Judiciary Committee for working on a bipartisan basis to take us one step closer to finally fixing America’s broken immigration system, by strengthening enforcement and focusing future immigration policy on welcoming those who will come here to work hard and contribute to America,” said Greg Brown, chairman & CEO of Motorola Solutions Inc. and chair of the Business Roundtable’s Select Committee on Immigration.
President Barack Obama issued a statement in support of the legislation, describing it as “largely consistent” with the principles he had outlined. “None of the committee members got everything they wanted, and neither did I,” Obama said, “but in the end, we all owe it to the American people to get the best possible result over the finish line.”
Some Republicans on the committee cautioned that this comprehensive reform package could be a repeat of 1986, when Congress last passed a sweeping immigration bill that granted citizenship to illegal immigrants, but then failed to effectively enforce the immigration laws put into place.
“Today we’re right back at the same place, talking about the same problems and proposing the same solutions,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
H-1B Compromise Reached
Consolidated from several amendments offered by Senator Hatch, the Hatch amendment was adopted by voice vote before the final vote.
The Hatch amendment raises the base cap of H-1B visas from 110,000 to 115,000 while keeping the maximum at 180,000 a year. The cap would float, depending on market conditions.
Another change concerns the spouses of H-1B workers. The original bill gave work authorization to spouses only if their home country reciprocated authorization for spouses of U.S. employees. The amendment gives that discretion to the State Department.
The original bill barred all companies from displacing U.S. workers within 90 days of when they file an H-1B visa petition, but the worker-displacement language was changed so that it does not apply to all employers but just to H-1B-dependent employers (defined as companies in which more than 15 percent of the workforce is H-1B visa holders).
The compromise amendment lifts the requirement that companies first offer tech jobs to U.S. workers except for H-1B-dependent employers. All companies would be required to make a good-faith effort to hire U.S. workers first.
A change was also made to the prohibition on outplacement of L visa holders. L visas allow companies to transfer certain classes of employees to the U.S. for temporary assignments.
The ban on businesses outsourcing their L visa transferees to another employer will apply only to companies with 15 percent or more L visa employees.
The Hatch-Schumer compromise is a “good deal for the American economy,” commented Compete America, a coalition representing corporations, universities, research institutions and trade associations that advocates for reform of immigration policy for highly educated foreign professionals.
The coalition includes Microsoft, Google, Accenture, the American Council on International Personnel and the Society for Human Resource Management.
“We believe that both labor and tech organizations made compromises that will benefit the American economy and create new jobs and new growth. We look forward to supporting this provision and this bill as it goes forward to the full Senate,” the coalition said in a statement.
The nation’s largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO, opposes Hatch’s amendments, claiming they’re hurtful to American workers. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement: “Hatch’s amendments change the bill so that high-tech companies could functionally bring in H-1B visa holders without first making the jobs available to American workers. [This] would mean that American corporations could fire American workers in order to bring in H-1B visa holders at lower wages.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he will introduce the immigration bill to the full Senate in June. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he will not block the bill from debate and a vote. Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office will begin to assess the financial cost of the legislation.
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Follow him at @SHRMRoy
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