Legal immigration a flashpoint in Congress
Posted on April 7, 2014 19:00 pm CDT
Springfield News Leader
by Deirdre Shesgreen
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WASHINGTON – Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, is adamantly opposed to giving any kind of legal status to the estimated 11 million people currently living in the U.S. illegally.
But legal immigration is another story.
The demand for foreign workers to fill low- and high-skilled jobs is a hot topic in Smith's southeastern Missouri district, which stretches from the St. Louis exurbs to the Bootheel.
The Republican congressman said local business groups have told him they can't find enough college graduates with advanced degrees in engineering, science and high-tech fields. Hospital administrators say they're desperate for foreign doctors willing to work in rural facilities. And peach and cotton farmers have pressed him about the need for greater access to seasonal agriculture workers.
"I hear this ... from folks throughout the district," said Smith, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, a key panel on immigration issues.
But the labor needs of U.S. farmers and businesses are a matter of sharp dispute. And the politics of immigration reform are dicey.
After the Democratically controlled Senate passed sweeping immigration reform last year, the spotlight has shifted to the GOP-controlled House.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has refused to take up the Senate bill, saying it's too big and unwieldy. Boehner has said the House will take up incremental immigration bills, but he has signaled that significant action is unlikely this year.
Still, the pressure on House Republicans to act is intense, coming from powerful business groups — such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau — who say an improved and expanded visa program for foreign workers is vital to the U.S. economy.
Some critics say U.S. business interests want foreign workers to keep wages low. And they fear immigration proposals that lift current visa caps could hurt American workers struggling to find jobs in a tough economy.
"There is no skills shortage. It's a myth," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington research group that generally opposes increasing the number of visas for high-skilled and agriculture workers. Business interests have one motivation for seeking more foreign workers, he says: "cheap labor."
Smith, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, says the facts on the ground in his district contradict that argument. Take, for example, the situation at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.
Chancellor Cheryl Schrader said a "record number" of companies send recruiters to the campus every spring with job offers in hand. Last year, she said, there were 2,281 jobs posted for the university's 2,000 graduates.
About 16 percent of the university's student population come from abroad to study at the school. Many of them "would love to live here and work here and pay taxes here," Schrader said, but they can't get the coveted work visas to stay.
Smith said he hears the same message when he talks to farmers as he does when talking to business leaders and university officials. They need foreign workers to "to harvest their crops and to gin their cotton," he said.
So it's no wonder, then, that Smith has supported two measures aimed at easing legal immigration:
• The SKILLS Visa Act, which would raise the annual cap for high-skilled workers from 65,000 to 155,000 and create a new visa program for entrepreneurs who demonstrate they can attract investment and create jobs.
• The Agriculture Guestworker Act, which would replace the current ag worker program with a new one that places fewer mandates on farmers. The legislation would allow farmers to bring 500,000 workers into the U.S. for seasonal jobs, with some flexibility in that cap depending on market demands. (The current program has no cap.)
Both those bills passed out of the Judiciary Committee last year. Smith said they are common-sense steps that would help fix a "broken" system.
Other lawmakers are less enthusiastic about these proposals.
Rep. Billy Long, R-Springfield, said he would be willing to take a look at those bills but only after stronger border enforcement measures are in place. He said he'd also have to be "satisfied there was a need" and that American workers would be protected.
For now, Long said, local business leaders and farmers are not telling him that they face serious worker shortages.
"I really have not heard much at all on that issue," he said. "Virtually 100 percent of our calls, emails and Facebook (messages) are 'Tighten the borders and don't do anything else right now.'"
Smith said he hears the tighten-the-border message from his constituents, too. And, he said, that will trump any lobbying he gets to advance legislation that increases high and low-skilled visas.
"The first thing you have to do is secure the borders," he said. Then Congress can look at the other immigration issues.
Reporter Deirdre Shesgreen writes about Missouri lawmakers and issues from Gannett's offices in Washington, D.C.