Immigration Issues Top Agenda as Term Wanes


Pressure is mounting on Congress to act on a range of immigration issues advanced by high-tech businesses, Latino activists and agricultural interests--all seeking a prized slot on the crowded Capitol Hill agenda before Congress adjourns for the fall elections.

The Senate Republican leadership, stuck for months on how to move a popular bill to raise the annual quota of visas for skilled foreign workers, has set a showdown vote for Tuesday on the top remaining legislative priority for high-tech lobbyists.

Democrats, urged by a galvanized Congressional Hispanic Caucus, are pushing a so-called mini-amnesty for more than 500,000 immigrants who entered the United States illegally and have lived in the country for many years in legal limbo. They also want immigration benefits for foreign nationals who fled certain Central American and Caribbean countries during periods of civil upheaval in the 1980s and 1990s.


In another development pressed by the agricultural industry, a House committee last Wednesday endorsed controversial changes in a guest-farm worker program that critics say would lead to exploitation of migrant laborers.

Although ostensibly separate, all of the immigration issues have become politically intertwined at the end of a congressional session that will present few remaining opportunities for votes on legislation.

As time runs short before the targeted Oct. 6 adjournment, interest groups that have bided their time all year are starting to call in chits. Promises are being renewed. Bluffs are being called. And compromise still seems elusive.

A key sequence of events unfolded Friday as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) announced that the Senate would vote Tuesday to end debate on a measure to increase the quota of so-called H-1B visas for skilled foreign workers. The proposal, which has broad bipartisan support, would allow as many as 195,000 of the temporary visas annually for the next three years.

Current law provides for 115,000 such visas this year--a supply exhausted months ago by labor-hungry employers in the booming U.S. economy. If no action is taken, the annual quota would drop further in succeeding years--a scenario that makes the issue all the more urgent for business leaders.

As he made the announcement, Lott rejected a request by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, to allow a vote on an amendment that would enact the immigration reforms sought by Latinos. Lott grew visibly impatient when asked afterward how he would handle the Latino issues.


“My strategy is to get H-1B done,” Lott told reporters. “We have been horsing around with this for weeks and months. At this point, we’re not going to be distracted with other side issues.”

Those were sweet words for the high-tech lobby. “We’re close to reaching closure,” said Marc Brailov, communications director for the American Electronics Assn. “This is really imperative for our industry.”

Reluctance to Alienate High-Tech Businesses

But Lott’s decision put Senate Democrats in a quandary. Most are likely to vote for the legislation itself, reluctant to alienate high-tech businesses that have become such important economic and political players in recent years. Data analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics show that federal campaign contributions from the computer equipment and services sector exceed $22 million in this election cycle, more than double the total of $8.9 million four years ago. The money has gone in roughly equal portions to Republicans and Democrats.

But Democrats also have vowed to help Latinos in what they describe as a matter of immigration fairness, and they are loath to be perceived as abandoning that principle while granting relief to high-tech businesses. They accuse Republicans of ducking a tough vote on immigration issues to avoid political backlash from Latino voters.

Support Rounded Up for Latino Package

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles), who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said in a telephone interview that the caucus and its allies are rounding up pledges of support for a Latino immigration package. Two central provisions would be:

* Giving many thousands of refugees from political unrest in El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti and Honduras rights to apply for permanent residence under a process now open to Nicaraguans and Cubans.


* Allowing illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States since before 1986 to apply for permanent residence. The current cutoff date is 1972.

If the H-1B bill cannot be a part of that package, Roybal-Allard said, a fallback plan would be to attach the reforms to a must-pass spending bill that would fund the Commerce, State and Justice departments. She said Latino lawmakers had obtained a promise from President Clinton to support that strategy by threatening to veto such a spending bill if it does not include the package. Clinton himself voiced support for the package, known as the “Latino and Immigrant Fairness Act,” at a black-tie Hispanic dinner here Wednesday.

“These are really the defining issues as far as the Latino community is concerned with regard to who supports us and who does not,” Roybal-Allard said. “Which is why you’re seeing the kind of lobbying and pressure to get this done.”

House Panel Backs Guest Worker Changes

On another front, the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday approved, on a 16-11 vote, changes in an obscure program that allows foreigners, usually Mexicans, to come to the United States for seasonal employment on farms. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), is opposed by Latino and farm worker activists.

Critics, led by Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills), say the measure would gut requirements to provide guest workers adequate housing and fair wages and potentially boost illegal immigration. Proponents argue that the changes would bolster a program that allows Mexicans to work on U.S. farms legally. Although it has uncertain chances of becoming law, the measure may come to a vote in the House and appears to be another factor in the endgame debate on immigration in Congress.