Budget appropriators in the House of Representatives approved a Department of Homeland Security funding bill Thursday. In addition to $5 billion for the president’s border wall, the Appropriations Committee advanced the bill with several amendments, including three authored by Republicans, that would improve the legal immigration system. The bill would streamline immigration for families of U.S. citizens and for higher- and lower-skilled foreign workers, while protecting immigrant Dreamers and asylum seekers at the border.
In a major win for legal immigration, Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., inserted a provision expanding the H-2A guest worker program. Current law limits the H-2A program only to jobs that are “seasonal” in nature. This blocks employers in year-round industries such as dairy, livestock, and poultry from accessing legal workers. It’s a pointless restriction that incentivizes illegal employment and undermines the purpose of the program, so Newhouse is rightly seeking to undo it.
Similarly, the committee also approved an amendment by Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., that would increase the number of H-2B guest workers for nonagricultural jobs. The H-2B program is critical for seafood, landscaping, and construction industries that cannot access the H-2A program, which has no cap at all. In recent years, employers have repeatedly been shut out of the program due to high demand.
This amendment would restore the “returning worker exemption” under which a worker who entered in the prior two years would not be counted against the limit again. In addition, it would also allow the government to distribute the visas more fairly across companies rather than shutting out some businesses from the program entirely. Both reforms would improve the system dramatically, and increasing the numbers of lesser-skilled guest workers is proven to reduce illegal immigration.
Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., managed to convince the committee to include his legislation, the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act (H.R. 392), into the funding bill. This amendment would start to end the discriminatory practice, started in the 1920s, of limiting immigration based on nationality. These “per-country” limits prevent any nationality from using more than 7 percent of the green cards for permanent residents. This irrationally provides the same number of green cards to 334,000 Icelanders as to 1.4 billion Chinese.
This micromanaging of America’s demographics results in senseless outcomes. Immigrants from India sponsored by employers who are applying right now will face such a long wait that they will likely die before receiving permanent residence. Other applicants face no wait at all. Family-sponsored immigrants from several countries face even longer wait times. H.R. 392 would end the per-country limits entirely for employment-based immigrants and raise them to 15 percent for family-sponsored.
With 327 cosponsors, H.R. 392 is one of the most popular pieces of legislation in the House and one of the most popular bills in history to receive no consideration in the relevant committee. The House Judiciary Committee has refused to so much as hold a hearing on a bill that 75 percent of House members want to see enacted into law, so Yoder had it inserted into the spending bill instead.
The committee wasn’t done. In a surprise vote, Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., received approval for an amendment banning the removal of DACA recipients or those who meet the requirements of the DACA program. This would codify pre-Trump policies that deprioritize deportations of Dreamers. It simply makes no sense to spend taxpayer dollars to remove people who grew up in this country, have contributed significantly to it, and consider themselves Americans.
The most shocking win, however, rebuked Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to block asylum claims by those who face threats from criminal gangs or abusive spouses. Rep. David Price, D-N.C., would prohibit funds from being used to implement guidance from the Department of Justice that prevents gang or domestic violence victims from being considered valid asylum seekers. Beyond its cruelty, the legally unnecessary decision incentivized illegal immigration by turning people away from the legal process — the exact opposite result that the government claims to want.
These reforms are far from comprehensive immigration reform, but they would go a long way to improve the legal immigration system and limit the damage that the administration has done by doing away with DACA and limiting asylum. Whether they are worth the $5 billion border wall, only the full Congress will decide.