Last week, in a room atop a tall Wall Street building overlooking the Statue of Liberty, leaders from various sides of the heated immigration debate came together to have a discussion that was unique in at least one way -- it was constructive.
If Lou Dobbs were there, he might have been frustrated.
Members of Congress agreed immigration has become the "third rail" of American politics. Immigration advocates acknowledged the steep climb that lies ahead. And business leaders said they had given up on Washington -- with its obsession with "inside baseball" -- and simply moved on.
But all agreed on one simple, common-sense and achievable step that could be the first ray of sunshine on an otherwise dark horizon. There is a bipartisan bill making its way through Congress that just might surprise some people by demonstrating the possibility of cooperation and progress on a modest but significant issue within the larger debate.
The bill, HR 5882, which passed through the House Subcommittee on Immigration last Friday, was authored by Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), and would recapture unused permanent resident visas, "green cards," lost through bureaucratic delay each year. Under current law, these green cards -- allocated for both professional and family unification purposes -- simply disappear if they are not issued in the year they are allocated. Cumulatively, hundreds of thousands of green cards go unused -- not for lack of demand -- but instead thanks to administrative and processing issues. Their recapture would help to begin to reduce the massive backlog in demand that exists for these visas.
As with the overall lack of access to professional (or "H1-B') visas, where demand vastly exceeds supply, the holdups in green card processing are hurting U.S. businesses and ultimately costing us American jobs. The Partnership for New York City highlighted the larger problem earlier this year in its report "Winning the Global Race for Talent: How U.S. Visa & Immigration Policies Threaten the New York Economy and Cost American Jobs -- And How We Can Fix It," and called for the cap on professional visas to be raised to meet market demand.
During last week's discussion, hosted by the Partnership and the New York Immigration Coalition, Robert Greifeld, CEO of NASDAQ, suggested that if a fix is not achieved soon, multinational companies would vote with their feet and locate jobs and operations overseas. The consequences of Congress not acting will be loss of American jobs and U.S. tax revenues.
And it's not just big business that gets hurt; the delays in processing employment-based visas are also creating recruitment and retention challenges for innovative small businesses -- and uncertainty for critically needed employees. For families, the delays in processing contribute to a 7 to 10 year wait for legal permanent residents to be reunited with their spouses and minor children. These delays strain families and interfere with the process of integration as legal permanent residents struggle to support two separate households.
The Lofgren/Sensenbrenner legislation will help address these backlogs without creating a single new green card, providing modest but important relief to our economy, small businesses and families alike. The U.S. State Department has testified that this is the "perfect solution" to the annual loss of green cards through processing delays. It is the only piece of immigration law that actually has a chance of passing this year.
Placed into the larger, and daunting, context of comprehensive immigration reform, this is just a modest first step. But it does provide reason for some optimism. Perhaps both sides can work together on a crucial issue, maybe common sense does indeed stand a chance, and maybe - in the not-too-distant future -- Lou Dobbs might end up a little frustrated.
Kathryn S. Wylde is President & CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a non-profit organization of the City's business leaders dedicated to maintaining New York City as a center of world commerce, finance and innovation. The full report is available on the Partnership's web site at www.pfnyc.org.
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