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Last-Ditch Talks Resume on High-Tech Visa Legislation

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith is working on extending more green cards to foreign high-tech graduates of American universities.

House and Senate negotiators hope that legislation granting additional permanent visas to highly skilled immigrants could be revived before the end of the year. But the presidential election makes finding a compromise more difficult.

Staffers from the offices of House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) met in October to talk about a possible solution, according to lobbyists and aides.

The discussions represent a last-ditch attempt at passing immigration legislation in the 112th Congress after the collapse in September of monthslong negotiations between Smith and Schumer. Their efforts centered on a plan to reallocate 55,000 green cards — which grant permanent residency — from a visa lottery program and reserve them instead for foreign high-tech graduates of American universities.

After negotiations broke down in September, Smith charged ahead anyway and introduced his own bill (HR 6429), which the House defeated under suspension of the rules. At the time, lobbyists and lawmakers expressed optimism that the bipartisan, bicameral talks would resume during the lame-duck session.

“A bipartisan compromise can easily be ready for the lame-duck session,” Schumer said.

But Capitol Hill aides now say the election outcome, whatever it might be, could complicate those efforts. In particular, President Barack Obama’s recent statement that he would push for a comprehensive immigration overhaul in the first year of a second term could make Democrats less likely to negotiate in November or December over the high-tech visa bill, a smaller piece of the pie.

Likewise, a victory by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney would give Republicans an incentive to hold off until he takes office, when they may be able to negotiate a more palatable deal. Romney has also said he would push for a broad immigration overhaul.

Bruce A. Morrison, a lobbyist who previously served as Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement, doesn’t buy that line of thinking.

“Waiting for ‘comprehensive’ is something that’s been going on for 17 years, so people who wait for comprehensive will likely grow old before they see the result,” he said.

Morrison is optimistic a narrow compromise limited to the high-tech visa issue could be reached without much rancor. “There’s definitely been conversation on the agreement that has been there all along,” he said.

The proposal hashed out by Smith and Schumer would have abolished the diversity visa program, a 22-year-old initiative that gives green cards to people from around the world through a lottery system. Republicans have targeted the program for years, but Democrats argue it broadens the diversity of the immigrant pool, particularly because it gives many people from African countries a chance to live here when they would otherwise not be able to.

Under the proposal, the 55,000 annual diversity visas would be reserved for people who earn a master’s or a doctoral degree from an American university in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, known collectively as the STEM fields.

Increasing the number of visas available for high-tech workers is one of the few pieces of immigration legislation that Democrats and Republicans — including Obama and Romney — agree on. And this latest effort benefited from strong support from tech and business groups eager for qualified workers.

Senate Democrats were willing to support swapping the diversity visas for visas for high-tech workers, but they demanded that Smith also include provisions making it possible for spouses and children of green card holders to live in the United States. Right now, immigration rules force many families to live apart for years while they wait for visas.

Republicans balked at those demands, leading the talks to collapse and prompting Smith to introduce his own high-tech visa bill, minus the family visa provisions that Democrats sought.

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