May 11, 2012 – 10:24 p.m.

Cornyn Answers Silicon Valley’s Request for Additional Visas

John Cornyn, the GOP’s top political strategist in the Senate, is looking to cut a bipartisan, election year deal that answers Silicon Valley’s plea for more skilled-worker visas.

“This is a problem we need to solve,” the Texas senator said, referring to demands from high-tech companies for a relaxation of restrictions on foreign graduate students and technicians.

A broad immigration overhaul remains at a standstill, and members of both parties realize that movement on any related issue will require significant bipartisan backing and numerous compromises. A narrowly targeted bill could quickly take on added weight.

Cornyn plans to unveil legislation this week that is likely to draw from several bipartisan measures inspired by the growing demand for talented foreign workers and entrepreneurs. “This would be a way of not increasing net new immigration, but yet targeting our immigration visas to people who have graduate degrees and skills,” Cornyn said.

Chris Coons, D-Del., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have a proposal (S 1866) to ease restrictions both on employment-based and family-sponsored visas. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, back a bill (S 1965) that would grant conditional permanent resident status to up to 50,000 foreign students with graduate degrees in the sciences, technology, engineering and math — and conditional immigrant visas to up to 75,000 foreign entrepreneurs who are about to receive such degrees and have at least $100,000 in capital to start businesses.

Such measures are intended to encourage highly skilled workers to stay in the United States and provide a bridge to permanent resident status for those who come here with student visas or one of the 65,000 H1B non-immigrant temporary visas issued to skilled workers each year.

Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said Cornyn’s plan could be paired with his family reunification proposal that would give priority to non-resident family members of U.S. citizens in competition for visas that are allocated by country. “If we’re going to take care of the business community, I want to take care of families. It may not be the big enchilada, but there’s got to be something for families,” Menendez said.

Cornyn has not said whether he would accept such language. But other Republicans, including Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia. say lawmakers in both parties are discussing a two-pronged approach that would terminate a program that awards 50,000 visas per year by lottery and use those visas for both family reunification and to bring in more highly skilled workers.

Rubio said he and Cornyn, who is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, are trying to reshape the GOP’s message on immigration by emphasizing “legal immigration modernization” along with tighter border security.

But Menendez says the push by high-tech companies for more visas is sure to run into resistance. “It’ll be hard because every time I’ve seen one element of the private sector look for relief, then the ag sector wants relief. The hotel sector wants relief. The restaurant sector wants relief. . . . And all of a sudden we’re back to a comprehensive bill,” he said.