SALT LAKE CITY — A long-running cap on employment-based green cards — one that sets the same annual maximums on immigrants from tiny Iceland as it does for those from India, a country almost 4,200 times larger — would be eliminated under a proposal passed with bipartisan support by the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday.
Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, said the move was a win, particularly for a state like Utah with a burgeoning tech industry that is in a near-constant state of need when it comes to highly skilled employees.
"I think this is an important step for Utah," McAdams said. "We have a strong and growing tech community in Utah and we need workers. Business priorities should be on hiring Americans.
"But if they can’t find Americans to fill those jobs, it’s good for our economy and Utah businesses to have skilled immigrants here and allow them to immigrate, work legally and pay taxes."
All four of the state's U.S. House representatives co-sponsored HR1044, the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, which passed on a vote of 365-65 Wednesday afternoon. A Senate version of the bill, which Utah GOP Sen. Mike Lee sponsors and has been championing for years, has been stalled out but may get a boost from the widespread support the House version garnered.
Following the House vote, Lee lauded the bipartisan approach to make meaningful upgrades to current immigration policy.
“I am pleased to see that the House has passed the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act with a strong, bipartisan majority," Lee said in a statement. "I have long said that our seemingly intractable differences on immigration policy in some areas should not stand in the way of us getting something done for the American people where we have bipartisan consensus.
"The Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act is an important point of common ground. The House vote shows that Congress is capable of making progress on this important piece of legislation. Now it’s time for the Senate to act.”
And while the legislation does not expand the total number of employment-based green cards available, which grant recipients permanent, legal residence in the U.S., supporters say the new merit-based, first-come, first-served program is a win for skilled immigrants as well as U.S. businesses and workers.
The current system distributes about 140,000 employment-based green cards with a 7% cap on any individual country, whether the recipients are from Iceland's population of about 360,000 or India's 1.5 billion. According to HR1044 sponsor Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., the disparities of the cap-based system have led to a situation in which some Indian holders of H-1B visas are currently facing a 70-year wait for the chance at a green card.
Critics of the effort, however, say the changes unfairly reward skilled immigrants from India, who currently hold the vast majority of temporary H-1B visas, mostly in high-tech fields, that are frequently the stepping stones to employment-based green cards.
McAdams discounted claims that lifting country caps would unfairly create advantages for immigrants from one country over others.
"I disagree with that criticism," McAdams said. "Current quota systems favor small countries over large countries. We want high-skilled workers to work here regardless of where they come from.
"To have an arbitrary cap is a disadvantage to large countries with high populations."
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, spoke on the House floor ahead of Wednesday's vote, voicing his support of the effort. Curtis, whose district is home to several of the state's high-tech businesses, said he regularly hears from leaders of those company's that they "do not have enough high-skilled workers … and demand continues to outstrip supply."
While HR1044 removes country caps for employment-based green cards, it also raises the caps on how 226,000 family immigrant visas are distributed from 7% per country to 15%.
Earlier this year, a proposal from the administration of President Donald Trump indicated an effort may be launched to eliminate around 90,000 immigrant visas from the H-4 program launched in 2015 under the administration of then-President Barack Obama. That effort created a pathway for the spouses of those holding H-1B visas to also work legally in the U.S.
McAdams has pushed back on that effort as well, including penning a letter to Trump's acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney in early April, asking the administration to back off the proposed changes.
Software giant Adobe established a Utah presence when it acquired web analytics startup Omniture in 2009. Adobe is now in the midst of a $90 million expansion in Utah and has plans in place to double its Utah workforce to over 2,000.
In April, an Adobe spokeswoman said the company believes the Trump proposal to rescind the work program for spouses of H-1B holders would lead to adverse outcomes for not just Adobe, but for Utah's broader tech community.
“Adobe, like many technology companies, relies on the H-1B program to fill specialized technical and professional roles – allowing us to recruit and retain a competitive workforce," the spokeswoman said in a statement. "We believe the removal or reduction of the H-4 visa program – which exists to support the immediate family members of H-1B holders – could make it harder to recruit top talent, and potentially have an adverse effect on workforce diversity. Adobe supports a working program and fair access to H-1Bs for our employees and H-4s for their immediate family members.”
Currently, there are 65,000 H-1B visas available annually, and another 20,000 for people who hold advanced degrees from U.S. colleges and universities. All of the visas have been issued within the first week of availability for the past 16 years. To deal with the glut of applications, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has moved to lottery system.
Last year, employers filed 190,098 petitions, including 95,855 on behalf of foreign-born professionals who had earned a graduate degree from a U.S. university, well above the 85,000 cap. While HR1044 does not address any issues related to the H-1B visas, the Senate version of the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act currently includes some proposed changes to the H-1B program.
Supporters of the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act say if the proposal finds support in the Senate, and can earn the president's signature, the changes to employment-based green card caps will help ease some of the pressure on the H-1B program. Some current holders of H-1B visas, particularly those from India, are looking at decadeslong waits for green cards under the current, cap-limited system.
A recent Deseret News story highlighted the challenges for those seeking H-1B visas who, even with specialized skills and high levels of education, face an uphill struggle in securing the temporary work permissions.