By SUSAN LAHEY
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
Rep. Doggett spoke Monday morning at Capital Factory on a panel about immigration reform sponsored by FWD.US. Other panelists included Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, Peter French, founder at FreeFlow Research in San Antonio that works with small businesses and immigrants to help identify routes that would let qualified STEM workers remain in the U.S., Michael Golden, partner with Boulette & Golden with handles employment and immigration law. The panel was moderated by John Holmes, vice president, legal at Freescale Semiconductor.
The immigration reform issue has many facets. On one hand it tackles how to deal with illegal immigrants. Some conservative factions want to build a fence between the U.S. and Mexico and allow medical facilities to report illegal immigrants who come in for treatment. Doggett has voted against those measures. But more pertinent to the audience Monday was the talent shortage for STEM companies, especially small businesses that would happily hire recent grads from U.S. universities—the majority of whom are not citizens–but for uncertainty of being able to keep them in the country. In addition, many startups are founded by immigrants, creating jobs and boosting the economy in general.
Goodbye Gang of EightRep. Doggett co-sponsored the “Attracting the Best and Brightest Act” to expand visas for applicants with STEM backgrounds and supported measures to slow illegal immigration while encouraging more avenues for residency and citizenship. He said he thought there would be action on the bill last summer. But then the Gang of Eight pushing it forward began to dissolve as various members dropped out saying they “didn’t trust President Obama.” Doggett said he suspected they hadn’t trusted President Obama before they worked on the bill either, but that was their reason for abandoning it.
“I still hope that there could be action this year,” Doggett said. “There are several ways to get this issue up in front of the House. The only way we ended the government shutdown or passed the Violence Against Women Act was to let a majority of the House rule.” Doggett is talking about getting a discharge petition which would have to be signed by all the House Democrats and 18 or 19 Republicans and would force the bill out of committee and up for a vote.
Linking With Bibles and Badges
Hammond pointed out that the opponents of immigration reform would be “melting down” the phones of their representatives and that supporters of immigration reform had to do the same. But they have to speak the language of the Republicans they’re trying to sway. Hammond, who is a member of a group called Bibles, Badges and Business for Immigration Reform, suggested finding a law enforcement officer or member of the Evangelical community to petition Republicans.
“They are the natural allies of Republicans,” Hammond said. “You need to get them engaged…. All these groups need to work together.” Speaking for himself, Hammond said, he’d like to take all the immigration caps off and let the marketplace “tell us what to do.”
French said that there were more than 800,000 foreign born students in the U.S. and only 85,000 H-1B Visas every year. “They are encouraged to go back to their home countries and compete against the United States. That’s a problem for the competitiveness of the United States as a whole.”
In addition French said, many of the spouses of people with H-1B Visas are not allowed to work while in the U.S. But they, too, have master’s degrees or PhDs and could be making valuable contributions to innovation and the economy.
Golden said the worst part was the uncertainty. Last year there were 124,000 applicants for the 85,000 H-1B Visas and the numbers may double or triple this year. The process for choosing who gets to stay is a lottery. He’s known people who were waiting since 2007. These are people who might build businesses if they had confidence that they would not have to pack up everything and leave once they’d established themselves. They’re also people who could contribute to existing companies if those companies had confidence they would not lose a key employee because the lottery didn’t pick them. Those immigrants, French and Golden said, are being wooed by countries like Canada who will then have a competitive advantage over the U.S.
Doggett pointed out that there are definitely people who will never be swayed to reform immigration to allow more people to stay, regardless of their qualifications.
“We have to all move forward together or we won’t move at all,” he said. The House may pass some measures individually and pass them to the Senate where they’ll be formed into a cohesive law. But debate in Congress, he said, isn’t fact based. A lot of it has to do with emotions. Proponents need to come up with the stories that will appeal to the sensibilities of opponents.
“Some people will never be persuaded,” he said. “But we just need a majority. We don’t need to win over the entire population on this issue. “