New House Immigration Reform Developments

by Reihan Salam

According to Congressional Quarterly (in a paywalled article), members of the House immigration reform group have agreed in principle on a 15-year path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants and, for now at least, to table the issue of creating a guest worker program. But Heidi Przbyla and Kathleen Hunter of Bloomberg report that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is pressing for doubling the number of temporary work visas granted to less-skilled workers, and that some influential congressional Republicans want to go even further: 

In talks during the drafting of the Senate bill, labor unions secured caps on the number of foreign, low-skilled workers allowed in the U.S., particularly in the construction industry suffering high unemployment. That agreement reached with the Chamber is drawing criticism from House Republicans.

“The Senate bill is a nonstarter in the House,” said Texas Republican Representative John Carter, a member of the House’s immigration negotiating group. “I’m not going to accept what the Senate and the Chamber came up with.” Geoff Burr, vice president of federal affairs for Associated Builders and Contractors, a group lobbying for higher caps, blamed Democrats for the impasse.

“They do have an incentive not to agree because then the Senate would be the only game in town,” he said.

The matter may not be closed in the Senate either. Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said he would wait until the legislation reaches the Senate floor to make pro-business alterations to the temporary worker program — eliminating a 15,000-worker annual cap on construction-industry visas.

Keep in mind that only a fifth of Republicans believe that legal immigration levels should be increased while 41 percent believe that they should be decreased, according to the Pew Research Center. It seems likely that these numbers are somewhat different in Texas, but it is not at all clear that Carter and Cornyn are representative of conservative opinion in the electorate. Because I favor a substantial increase in skilled immigration and a reduction in less-skilled immigration, I see the decision to punt on a guest worker program as a good thing. One problem, however, is that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce might lose interest in a legislative proposal that does not increase less-skilled immigration. While technology and financial services firms are keenly interested in increasing skilled immigration, and would likely be content with legislation that did little more than that, firms in low-wage, labor-intensive services would be sorely disappointed. And it is these firms that are providing much of the muscle behind the immigration reform effort. Without them, it is somewhat more likely that conservative lawmakers — particularly conservative lawmakers who are skeptical about the wisdom of creating a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants — will defect from the legislative push. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.