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House Republicans Show Movement on Immigration

Republican Senators introduced an alternative version of the DREAM Act today, and all you need to know about it is that the two sponsors, Jon Kyl and Kay Bailey Hutchison, are retiring. Marco Rubio hasn’t even signed on as a co-sponsor yet. The well-publicized GOP outreach on immigration hasn’t yet surpassed the need to placate a largely anti-immigrant base.

However, there actually has been some movement on an immigration related measure that could represent a first step on the issue. The House plans to vote on a bill that would increase visas for so-called STEM immigrants, college graduates who have a major in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. The House took a run at this right before the election, but they put it in a position to fail, both by taking away visas from the Diversity Visa Program for every one it added for STEM graduates, and then by putting the bill on the suspense calendar, forcing a 2/3 vote for passage. Democrats voted against it en masse, and then Republicans tried to get an advantage by pointing to Democrats voting against an immigration program (that worked out well in the election, no?). This is really ridiculous, since virtually everyone agrees that giving green cards to STEM graduates makes tons of sense for the country, rather than kicking out talented immigrants who get their education in the US.

Things look more constructive this time. The bill will get full consideration on the floor, needing only an up-or-down vote. More important, Republicans added a couple key concessions:

House Republicans still smarting from their poor showing among Hispanics in the presidential election are planning a vote next week on immigration legislation that would both expand visas for foreign science and technology students and make it easier for those with green cards to bring their immediate families to the U.S. […]

Republicans are changing the formula this time by adding a provision long sought by some immigration advocates – expanding a program that allows the spouses and minor children of people with permanent residence, or green card, to wait in the United States for their own green cards to be granted.

There are some 80,000 of these family-based green cards allocated every year, but there are currently about 322,000 husbands, wives and children waiting in this category and on average people must wait more than two years to be reunited with their families. In that past that wait could be as long as six years.

The bill still eliminates the Diversity Visa Program, so I don’t expect Democrats to support it. It will pass the House and then stop there, unless Democrats in the Senate try to pass their own version and reconcile it in conference. Anyway, there’s not really enough time to get this done in the lame duck, especially given the snail’s pace so far.

But this does represent a willingness to deal on immigration that wasn’t there before. The previous bill was punitive, while being disguised as an immigration measure. This one is still punitive to the Diversity Visa Program, but the extra concession on family-based green cards signals that Republicans want to come to some resolution on the entire issue. It doesn’t outweigh the punitive nature of the bill, and I’d still expect most Democrats to vote no because it doesn’t increase visas. But it sets the table for something in 2013.

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David Dayen

David Dayen