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6/26/2007
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Senate Resuscitates Immigration Reform Bill For Debate

The controversial bill seems to have something that pleases and angers just about everyone.

The Senate breathed life again into its comprehensive immigration reform bill, voting Tuesday to resume debate on the legislation after having been stalled a couple of weeks.

The controversial bill -- and its many proposed amendments -- seems to have something that pleases and angers just about everyone, from provisions creating a temporary worker program for low-skilled workers to raising the cap for high-skilled foreign-born tech workers who enter the U.S. with H-1B visas.

The Senate bill proposes to raise the annual cap on H-1B visas from the current 65,000 to 115,000, and not to exceed 180,000.

However, among amendments that could now proceed to debate are proposals favored by the tech-industry lobbyists to restore visa cap exemptions for foreign students with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math, as well as create an employer-based green-card program to complement the merit-point based green-card system that's part of the bill's major reforms.

Other amendments to the bill aim to beef up H-1B anti-fraud and anti-abuse regulations, which tech-industry lobbyist complain are too restrictive to companies that already play by the rules.

But the jury is still out on whether the overall immigration reform bill with hit another gridlock.

"H-1B is only one part of the discussion, but there are a lot of other issues, including legalizing undocumented workers, that are hotter button" for some legislators, said Ron Hira, assistant professor of public policy on leave from Rochester Institute of Technology and research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, in an interview.

"It's hard to say what will happen next," Hira said. However, if the comprehensive bill falters again, it's possible that standalone bills focused only on H-1B related issues will resurface in the months to come, he said.

Indeed, if comprehensive reform falls apart, it doesn't necessarily mean the end of all the pieces of proposed reforms. Stephen Yale-Loehr, a Cornell University law professor and lawyer specializing in immigration law, thinks the proposed points system for green cards, for example, is too new and dramatic a change to the current system to be passed unless it's part of a larger compromise package. Not so an increase to the H-1B cap, which has been debated for the past several years.

"The H-1B proposals are a good example of something that could go through by itself," said Yale-Loehr in an interview. That could come with changes related to enforcement, such as giving the Department of Labor more money or powers to enforce the requirement that recipients receive a prevailing wage, but the provisions would likely be "something that most employers could live with."

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