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How Sen. Mike Lee proposes to end ‘discrimination’ in U.S. immigration system

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, questions former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 3, 2020.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, ask questions during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 3, 2020.
Greg Nash, pool via Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill Sen. Mike Lee pushed through the Senate aims to end what he calls discrimination in the nation’s immigration system while increasing protections for American workers.

The measure, which passed the Senate by unanimous consent Wednesday, would do away with per-country caps on employment-based green cards.

“Few ideas are more central to who we are as Americans than the notion that people should be judged based on their own merits as individuals and not on their race or nationality,” the Utah Republican said.

Under current law — which Lee has described as “rigid, arbitrary, antiquated, outdated” quotas — limit immigrants in any given country to no more than 7% of the total number of visas allocated. As a result, immigrants from nations with large populations have significantly longer wait times to get a green card than do immigrants from smaller countries.

“This legislation lives up to our founding principles by ending nationality discrimination in our nation’s employment-based green card system,” he said.

Lee and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., introduced the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act in February 2019, an issue Lee has worked on since being elected to the Senate a decade ago. He has called it an “important point of common ground” between Republicans and Democrats who can’t agree on how to fix the country’s immigration system.

The bill didn’t fare as well last year when Lee tried to pass it with unanimous consent. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., objected, effectively blocking the measure from moving forward. It only takes one objection under Senate rules to stop a request for unanimous consent.

The version passed Wednesday had some minor changes from the original legislation, said Lee spokesman Conn Carroll.

The amended bill also contains reforms to the H-1B visa system. The system allows U.S. employers to hire foreign workers in specialty occupations, including technology, engineering and medicine, for up to three years. The visa can be extended to six years after which the holder must reapply.

Lee’s legislation stalled in the past because some lawmakers believed that changes in the visa system must include protections against fraud. Lee amended the bill to include those protections.

“American families should always be our top priority and this bill contains strong new protections for American workers,” he said.

Specifically, the bill would:

  • End discrimination by eliminating annual country-of-origin caps on green cards without increasing the total number issued each year.
  • Forbid all employers with workforces consisting of more than 50% temporary visa workers from sponsoring any new temporary visa workers.
  • Close the temporary business visitor visa loophole used by many employers to avoid H-1B visa caps.
  • Levy new fees on all H1-B applications that would be dedicated to investigating fraud in the H-1B system.
  • Prohibit the adjustment of status for any member of the Chinese Communist Party or People’s Liberation Army.

Lee’s proposed changes to the H-1B visa system come as a federal judge Tuesday struck down the Trump administration’s attempt to curtail the number of visas issued to skilled foreign workers.

The changes applying to the program announced in October include imposing salary requirements on companies employing skilled overseas workers and limits on specialty occupations. Department of Homeland Security officials deemed it a priority because of coronavirus-related job losses and estimated as many as one-third of those who have applied for H-1Bs in recent years would be denied under the new rules, The Associated Press reported.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White in California said the government didn’t follow transparency procedures and its contention that the changes were an emergency response to pandemic job losses didn’t hold water because the Trump administration has floated the idea for some time but only published the rules in October, according to AP.

The U.S. issues up to 85,000 H-1B visas a year, and most of the nearly 600,000 H-1B visa holders in the U.S. are from India and China.