White House considers proposals to sharply increase legal immigration


President Obama, accompanied by Vice President Biden, makes a statement about immigration reform at the White House on June 30. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

The White House is considering proposals from business and immigrant rights groups that are pressing President Obama to provide hundreds of thousands of green cards for high-tech workers and the relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

The behind-the-scenes lobbying comes as Obama prepares to announce a series of executive actions that could include plans to defer the deportations of millions of people living in the country illegally, most of whom are Hispanic.

Although the efforts to relieve pressure on some of the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants are expected to be the centerpiece of the president’s action, the administration also is weighing measures that would streamline the legal immigration system by reducing huge backlogs of foreigners hoping to obtain legal permanent residency.

What was conceived as a targeted executive action strategy has morphed into a full-scale deliberation of one of the most sprawling and in­trac­table public policy issues facing the nation. White House aides have said that Obama will announce his actions by summer’s end.

Satisfying the demands of various groups, especially the business community, could provide the White House valuable political support at a time when Democrats face a fierce fight to maintain control of the Senate. At the same time, presidential aides remain wary that Obama not be seen as overstepping his legal authority as Republicans attempt to gin up public opposition to the president’s use of executive power.

Some of the outside proposals would more than double the number of people allowed into the country on employment- and family-based green cards — from the annual global limit of 366,000, according to estimates from some of the advocacy groups.

“We believe that the theme for the package of changes you undertake administratively should be focused on opening the legal immigration system for more to benefit,” a coalition of businesses and immigrant rights groups, led by former congressman Bruce Morrison (D-Conn.), wrote in a letter to the White House this week.

White House aides said the administration has held 20 meetings in the past two months to solicit input from stakeholders. But they emphasized that no final decisions have been made.

Obama “believes it’s important to understand and consider the full range of perspectives on this issue,” said White House deputy press secretary Shawn Turner.

Opponents of such proposals, including many Republicans, have argued that increasing the number of immigrants allowed into the country to work could harm American workers in search of jobs in an economy still recovering from the effects of a global recession. A comprehensive immigration bill approved by the Senate last year included provisions to increase work visas for both high-skilled and low-skilled workers, but the Republican-controlled House refused to take up the legislation.

“The increases in foreign workers demanded by corporate lobbyists would be in addition to the administration’s plan to implement amnesty by executive fiat, providing work permits to 5 to 6 million illegal immigrants and visa overstays who will be able to take any job in any industry, public or private,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a leading opponent of relaxing immigration policy.

The administration stitched together a diverse array of interest groups last year to help push for comprehensive immigration reform in Congress. But those efforts collapsed this summer, prompting Obama to announce in June he would go as far as he could legally to reform border control laws under his own power.

Now those groups consider his pending announcement on executive actions the best chance to achieve their goals before he leaves office in early 2017. Their wide-ranging demands have heightened the stakes for an administration already jittery about the implications of enacting large-scale policy changes just weeks before November’s midterm elections.

One lobbyist who has been involved in talks with the White House said administration lawyers have been “pretty nitpicky” when discussing the legal justifications for the green-card proposals with business representatives.

“Are they going to go all in?” said the lobbyist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. “Are they going to recognize the value of having business leaders being the ones willing to step up and say this is good? All I can say is we’re facing a very high level of scrutiny.”

The proposal outside groups are pushing centers on changing the way the government counts the number of foreigners who are granted green cards, which allow them to live and work in the United States. Under the law, 226,000 green cards are reserved for family reunification and 140,000 for employment in specialized fields, numbers that Congress established in 1990.

The government has traditionally counted each family member against the limit when granting visas to foreign siblings of U.S. citizens. The spouses and children of permanent U.S. residents and foreign workers have counted against the limits as well. Advocates are calling on Obama to count only the principal green-card holder in each case, while allowing the rest of the family members in, which would reduce huge backlogs in both categories.

More than 4.4 million people are waiting for green cards, according to the State Department.

Asian American advocacy organizations have focused on such changes because, other than Mexico, the countries with the longest waiting lists of people trying to join relatives in the United States are the Philippines, India, Vietnam and China — with delays stretching as long as two decades.

If Obama defers deportations for undocumented immigrants but does not enact the green-card reforms, “it will be bittersweet, and the Asian American community will be disappointed,” said Mee Moua, president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, who has been involved in talks with the White House. Various Latino groups also are supporting the changes.

In addition to altering how foreigners are counted against the green-card limits, Compete America, a coalition of large high-tech firms, is pushing for changes that would allow the administration to “recapture” unused worker visas from previous years. That change alone could allow for an estimated 200,000 additional visas for foreign high-tech workers, experts said.

“We’ve given the president what we think are options under his existing authority — meaningful, albeit short-term, reforms,” said Scott Corley, Compete America’s executive director.

Several immigration lawyers said Tuesday that U.S. legal statutes governing the green card limits are ambiguous about whether siblings, spouses and children must be counted. Bo Cooper, who served as general counsel for what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1999 to 2003, called the statutes among the “messiest” areas of immigration law.

“In that situation, the courts have traditionally given the executive branch a great deal of deference in interpreting the statute and supplying the answer as long as it is reasonable,” Cooper said. “The administration, no matter what it’s doing this fall, will try to make sure it hews to its legal authority. The question is how willing they’ll find themselves able to move into space that the statute gives them.”

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