Nibbling Around the Immigration Edges in U.S. vs. Big Ideas in U.K.

By David North, December 13, 2011

Here's an across-the-pond contrast in immigration policy-making.

Over here, the House has passed and the Senate is considering HR 3012, a bill which will not add any visas to those currently authorized, but will give some long-term applicants – those from India and China – quicker green cards, while slowing the issuance of those documents to people from other nations, Korea and Mexico, for instance. The mass migration people seem to think this tinkering would be a triumph for them.

In short, a minor change.

Over there, an independent arm of the government, the Migration Advisory Committee, is suggesting that a minimum salary (a threshold) for incoming skilled workers be established; if you make less, you cannot enter. The MAC's chair, according to a Financial Times article, said a threshold of £35,000 ($56,103) would cut the annual inflow of skilled workers to the U.K. by two thirds, from 60,000 to 20,000.

In short, a thunderous idea.

The MAC's proposal – just like a bill passed by one U.S. house and not the other – is just that, a high-level, very visible proposal that would have to be confirmed by other parts of the government before it becomes law. But in the British system, if David Cameron's government wants it, the House of Commons will pass it, and it becomes law. The upper chamber, the House of Lords, rarely does anything except suggest corrective amendments, which, in turn, must be approved by the Commons before they go into effect.

The MAC – and this may be hard for Americans to visualize – is not a controlled arm of the U.K.'s current coalition government. It is a sort of Federal Reserve in the immigration business and marches to its own drummer.

Now it is perfectly possible that neither H.R. 3012 nor the MAC proposal will go into effect, but the contrast in their scope suggests that the immigration policy debate in the U.K. is on a rather grander scale than here.

Returning to HR 3012, the bill relates to the fact that the immigration act puts numerical ceilings on both the total number of employment-based immigrants (140,000 a year), and separate and overlapping ceilings that cap, at 7 percent, the admissions of such immigrants from any single nation. It was designed to diversify the flow of immigrants to the U.S. In recent years Indian and Chinese applicants for employment-based green cards have increased sharply, running up against the double ceilings, and causing delays in the issuance of the green cards to workers from those nations – delays often experienced by H-1B beneficiaries while employed in the U.S. on a nonimmigrant basis.

While HR 3012 was passed by a huge bipartisan majority in the House, it is now stuck in the Senate because a single senator has put a hold on it, a parliamentary maneuver unknown in Britain.

That senator is Charles Grassley (R-IA), ranking GOP member of the Judiciary Committee, and a longtime H-1B skeptic. (Disclosure: his staff invited me to testify in the Senate on the immigrant investor (EB-5) program the other day.)

There is speculation in a Computerworld article about what happens next:

But Grassley, who has been fighting for major changes in the H-1B rules, didn't specify what changes he is seeking to the House bill. It's possible that he may be using the legislation to seek broader concessions in the use of all employer-sponsored visas, including H-1B.

Grassley . . . last week placed a "hold" on the bill, putting it in a procedural limbo that may sink this effort.

"I have concerns about the impact of this bill on future immigration flows, and am concerned that it does nothing to better protect Americans at home who seek high-skilled jobs during this time of record high unemployment," said Grassley, last week, in the Senate in announcing his action.

It will be interesting to see what he wants changed or added to the bill, and how the negotiations proceed, if they do. Stay tuned.