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Bipartisan Visa Reform? Hold on

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Think it's hard to get the 60 votes necessary to quash a filibuster and get something done in the U.S. Senate? Forget the supermajority: A single senator can hold up a vote for months on end -- even on a bipartisan bill that serves the needs of our economy.

Example A: Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act.

Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives performed a modern-day political miracle in November by coming together to approve this bill, which would restore balance and fairness to the distribution of employment- and family-based immigrant visas. Introduced by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), it passed 389-15.

The bill would provide a small yet important fix to the distribution of employment- and family-based visas, which is arbitrary in nature and inconsistent with basic supply and demand principles. Under current law, Iceland and Belize have the same cap on visas as India and China, two countries that provide the U.S. with large numbers of science, technology and engineering professionals.

This archaic approach has created huge backlogs in countries with high numbers of employer-sponsored immigrants. For example, workers from India currently face waits of up to 70 years -- yes, 70 years -- to receive a green card. That is not good government.

Likewise, naturalized citizens and permanent residents from countries such as Mexico and the Philippines run up against years-long backlogs when trying to reunite with their loved ones. The Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act eliminates one of the obstacles for the people who have been waiting the longest for employer- or family-based green cards.

Sen. Grassley, an army of one when it comes to blocking smart immigration policy, placed a hold on the legislation in December. He cited concerns about "future immigration flows" and "that it does nothing to better protect Americans at home who seek high-skilled jobs during this time of record high unemployment."

The senator is turning a blind eye to the fact that Americans at home face the same amount of competition for jobs now that they would if the bill became law. The legislation does not increase the total number of visas; rather, it simply redistributes the existing pool.

In fact, the minimalism that makes the bill politically palatable to 389 representatives and, for all we know, as many as 99 senators is also what limits its reach. If, one day, we get to celebrate the bipartisan support for this measure, we can do so only insofar as it lays the groundwork for broader immigration reform.

Having proved they can join forces, Republicans and Democrats should do so in the name of fulfilling our economic need for skilled workers of all kinds. From the skilled engineer to the skilled farm worker, our economy depends on immigrants and immigration.

For starters, legislators could add to the total number of visas by simplifying and shortening the green-card application process for international students who earn advanced degrees from American universities. Such a change for graduate students in science, technology, engineering or mathematics would encourage technological innovation on our shores and create jobs in the process, as Stuart Anderson, Executive Director of the National Foundation for American Policy, points out in a recent policy brief.

We also must look beyond advanced degrees and recognize that skilled immigrants create jobs in all sectors of the American economy. For instance, the job of a skilled immigrant farm worker is directly tied to other "upstream and downstream" U.S. jobs as someone needs to transport, package and process a farm's output. Studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggest that about three U.S jobs are tied to every job on the farm. If a labor shortage forced a shift to overseas food production, all of these jobs would disappear. That's without mentioning the economic disadvantages of importing more of our food.

Recruiting skilled workers, in concert with increased investment in education and training for U.S. workers, will make the American workforce more competitive. By limiting or excluding immigrants, we only hobble ourselves.

For now, even modest reform is on hold. But even if we have the opportunity to applaud members of Congress for a small visa-reform bill, we must continue to push for more meaningful policy changes that match our economic reality with our need for a skilled workforce. It is time to set our sights higher.

Ali Noorani is the Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum.