WASHINGTON — With Congress unable to agree on a comprehensive immigration overhaul, and with states taking immigration matters into their own hands, Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho thinks he has an idea that can draw bipartisan support.
Labrador, a Republican, last week introduced a bill that would speed up applications for permanent residency to foreign-born graduate students who are offered jobs by U.S. employers in high-tech fields.
"Many of these students actually leave," he said in an interview. "They go back to their home country or to our competitors."
Not only would his legislation help boost the U.S. economy by keeping highly educated workers in the country, Labrador said, but it also would help encourage more American students to pursue math- and science-based careers.
Labrador said his bill aims to shorten the waiting period for approval of work visas, which can take several years and can discourage talented workers from staying put. While the legislation wouldn't change the process, it would enable students to obtain visas once they've completed their paperwork, which should take no more than two years.
"Once you're completed with paperwork, you should have a visa available," Labrador said.
Leo Morales, the communications coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, said Labrador's proposal fails to address the problem of students who are in the country illegally now through no fault of their own.
"The doors are shut to hundreds of thousands of thousands of talented students in the U.S.," Morales said. "We need to open up the access to higher education for these youth."
Morales said the DREAM Act, which would offer legal residency to certain high school graduates who came to the country illegally as minors, would better accomplish this goal. Although Labrador hadn't yet taken office last year when the legislation made it through the House but died in the Senate, it isn't likely that he would have voted for it anyway.
"He's broadly sympathetic to the affected kids, but I don't think he's ever seen a DREAM Act variant that he'd be able to support," said spokesman Phil Hardy.
So far, Labrador's only cosponsors are Republicans, but he hopes to get more members of both parties. The House Judiciary Committee must approve the legislation before it moves to a full vote. He said the Republican leadership is looking at the issue.
"There's a lot of people looking at it right now, and we're trying to build the list more and more," Labrador said.
With Congress consumed with how to boost the economy and reduce the deficit from now through the holidays, and then focused on next year's election, Labrador said it might be all he can do to get his bill passed before the current legislative session ends.
"I don't know if I can get it done this year," he said. "I'm just a freshman."
Labrador, 43, spent 15 years as an immigration attorney before riding the Republican wave to Congress last year, one of five Latino Republicans elected.
Labrador said his party's immigration rhetoric is a turn-off for many Latino voters who might otherwise be inclined to vote Republican on social and fiscal issues.
"They don't feel welcome in the party, and I think that's a shame," he said. "I think we can change this."
Labrador said that if the party wants to remain relevant, it needs to welcome people of different backgrounds.
"I think it's happening nationally," he said. "We need to continue to have this conversation."
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