WASHINGTON D.C. -A bill overwhelmingly approved by the United States House of Representatives that would cut short the waiting period for hundreds of Filipinos lasting for up to a decade so they can be reunited with relatives in America appears in peril in the Senate.
The House passed last month by a 389-15 vote a bill to expand the number of family-based visas for relatives of US residents. But when New York Charles Schumer, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on immigration, filed a companion measure last Dec. 15, he tacked a provision that would allow up to 10,000 Irish to be given work permits.
While the House version enjoyed overwhelming support, Schumer’s proposal has drawn immediate push back from both Republican and Democratic colleagues. It was largely seen as an accommodation for the large Irish immigrant community in New York.
HR 3021 or the Fairness for Highly Skilled Immigrants Act (FHSIA) sponsored by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) will increase the family-based visa limit from 7 percent to 15 percent per country.
The State Department allocates only 226,000 family-based visas worldwide every year. Countries with the most visa application backlogs include the Philippines, Mexico, China and India.
For Filipinos, the backlog is worst for the 4th preference (brothers and sisters petitioned by US citizens) where the waiting period currently stands at about 24 years.
If the FHSIA is approved the backlog of family petitions of Filipinos will be reduced by advancing the priority dates, especially for the 1st and 2nd preferences (unmarried sons and daughters of US citizens; and spouses, minor children and unmarried sons and daughters of US permanent residents, respectively).
“The reason for the strong support for this bill is that there is no provision for the increase in visa numbers,” explained California-based lawyer Lou Tancinco. “It simply rearranges the order of the green card application queue and averages the amount of time between green card backlogged countries and non-backlogged countries.”
“This will significantly shorten the wait for the people in the family queues,” said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA.
“The Republicans were keen on helping skilled workers but Republicans knew they needed Democrat support for the bill,” he averred. “The Democrats said ‘Okay, but do something for [immigrant] families.”
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said that while the bill won’t bring significant changes, “we think this is a positive step forward.”
He added it was a good sign that “Republicans and Democrats are actually working on solutions.”
But this rare bipartisan unanimity on Capitol Hill could unravel because opposition to Schumer’s version. His bill would potentially allow 10,000 Irish citizens per year to live and work in the US using a new E-3 non-immigrant visa. If passed, undocumented Irish already in the US may be eligible to apply for the program.
But the provision sounded too much like amnesty for undocumented nationals that are mostly anathema to Republicans. There are reports the GOP may filibuster the measure which dooms chances that the FHSIA could be ready for President Obama’s signature by the summer.
There is allegedly a strong Irish lobby to preserve this in FHSIA. “We are eager to work in a bipartisan fashion to pass this bill at the earliest opportunity,” Schumer stressed.
Schumer has drawn support from Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts who has also become a central player in the FHSIA battle. He is reportedly leading efforts to convince his GOP colleagues not to block the bill.
Some groups have questioned whether supporters of the proposed relief for undocumented Irish workers go too far in favoring one nationality. Roy Beck, president of DC-based NumbersUSA said the proposal is part of a pattern of discrimination favoring immigrants from white, English-speaking nations.
“They’re basically upset because…they have to share those privileges with Latinos and Africans and Asians,” he declared.
Among those keenly watching are Filipino-Americans who see the promise of finally being reunited with family from the Philippines sooner, if only lawmakers can finally agree on exactly what they want from the FHSIA.