The Senate’s budget package includes provisions that would make available hundreds of thousands of green cards for new permanent legal immigrants, in what is shaping up as the next congressional fight over immigration.
The bill’s measures would “recapture” 90,000 unused employment-based immigration visas and would exempt family members from counting toward the cap, which is set at 140,000 per year.
Based on past trends, exempting family members would mean an additional 150,000 permanent legal immigrants annually. About 1 million people become legal immigrants each year.
The change is part of the deficit-reducing budget reconciliation bill, which is on the Senate floor today and includes billions of dollars in cuts in Medicaid and other social spending and allows for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“We should never be doing immigration policy inside this kind of bill,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, adding that he will vote against the bill if it makes it to the House.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, which was faced with a deficit-reduction target, chose to meet it in part by selling to employers the 90,000 unused immigration visas and by raising the fee on employment-based visas by $500 each.
The panel also voted to allow 30,000 more workers per year under the H-1B temporary-visa program.
The measure is supported by universities, hospitals, technology companies and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which say there is a shortage of qualified workers.
“These are workers who already have been certified by the Department of Labor for positions U.S. workers could not be found, or who are internationally recognized for research and other achievements,” the Chamber of Commerce said in a letter of support.
The chamber also said many of these workers are in the country and that the Senate bill just streamlines their pursuit of green cards.
Deborah Meyers, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said the changes make sense because the current system doesn’t accommodate the need for high-skilled workers and would help reduce a backlog in applications from India and China, where those now being accepted applied at least four years ago.
But critics say the money raised — about $120 million a year — does not compensate for the damage to Americans seeking jobs.
The Coalition for the Future American Worker, made up of groups that back stricter immigration limits, will begin running a newspaper ad lobbying Congress this week to oppose the changes.
The bill first must clear the Senate and then go to a House-Senate conference committee, and some House members said they will try to ensure the provision isn’t included in any final bill.
“We don’t expect there to be any immigration provisions in reconciliation. This is not the time or place for controversial immigration provisions,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican.
Mr. Smith said party leaders will have a difficult enough time passing the budget bill without adding immigration to the list of issues covered.
“We’re going to need every Republican we can get to pass it,” he said.
The House budget bill does not raise immigration levels. Instead, the House Judiciary Committee met its budget-cutting goal by increasing the fee for L-1 visas, another temporary-worker program, by $1,500.
The Senate debate on legal immigration comes even as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, announced last week that the Senate would take up broad immigration reform early next year.
The overall bill is expected to tackle legal and illegal immigration, border security and interior immigration enforcement.
Amy Call, a spokeswoman for Mr. Frist, said he supports the legal immigration increases but considers them “a temporary stopgap measure.”
“Recapturing old, unused visas will only help satisfy some of the current excess demand for highly skilled workers, but at some point even this pool of recaptured visas will be exhausted,” Mrs. Call said.
The bill also increases H-1B visas from 65,000 to 95,000 in fiscal 2006 and raises the fee employers pay by $500.