At the Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, (R-Va.), would only commit "to have a serious conversation" about the U.S. immigration system.
In contrast, two separate bipartisan groups in the U.S. Senate are working on broader immigration issues, including tech-specific reforms. One of their proposals would increase the H-1B visa cap to as high as 300,000 a year. Goodlatte said it was "instructive to note" that only about 12% of legal immigrants to the U.S. are picked on the basis of education and skills, while some other countries, including Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada, "select over 60% of their immigrants on this basis." The hearing was well attended by lawmakers.
There were strong, contentious statements about whether to allow some 11 million undocumented workers to legally stay in the country. But there appeared to be genuine interest doing something to increase the number of skilled immigrants staying in the U.S..
To that point, Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) asked the panelists whether "there are less contentious [immigration reform] issues with our highly skilled workers?"
The panelists broadly agreed with Bachus, though witness Michael Teitelbaum, who chaired the U.S. Commission Immigration Reform in mid-1990s, offered a caveat. "You must be careful not to deter American kids from going into those fields," said Teitelbaum. "So you just have to do it right."
Some observers have argued that unrestricted immigration in certain science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields could impact decisions by U.S. students whether to major in those areas. "You might end with fewer people net if you discourage the inflow of people from the largest source of those occupations, who are American citizens," said Teitelbaum.
Teitelbaum was joined by witnesses Vivek Wadhwa, director of research at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University, Dr. Puneet Arora, vice president of the high skills advocacy group Immigration Voice, and San Antonio, Texas, Mayor Julian Castro.
Bachus and other lawmakers floated the idea of giving greater priority to skilled immigrants.
He focused his remarks on the high-skill aspect of immigration while pointing to a political reality when it comes to getting a bill approved. "It's going to be much easier to solve the problem with highly skilled workers," he said.
U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the previous judiciary committee chair, said that the high-skilled worker immigration has to be done in a way that doesn't hurt U.S. workers. "We don't want to jeopardize their jobs or depress their wages," he said.
Smith last year pitched a bill to make up to 55,000 STEM visas available for advanced degree graduates of U.S. universities. But it lacked White House support because it didn't meet its goal of comprehensive immigration reform.
Wadhwa, who has long advocated for more liberal green card and temporary visa policies, argued that immigrants are playing a critical role in creating new companies and infusing the U.S. with the talent critical to maintaining its lead in technology development.
"We can solve the world's grand challenges, and immigration is one of the keys to making it happen," said Wadhwa, who said increased immigration can help grow the U.S. economy.
Arora, a medical doctor, told of his long history of immigration limbo.
He said it took him 15 years to get the green card he received in 2011.
The immigration process is so backlogged that the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Service is now working on green card applications made in 2004, said Arora. The current immigration process, he contended, takes a toll "on professionals and their families."
Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.