Politics & Government

New idea for funding hurricane aid: Charge high-tech immigrants for green cards

Rep. Kevin Yoder poses with Sunayana Dumala (front), whose husband was murdered in a hate crime Yoder’s district last year, and other Indian born activists from the Kansas City area seeking green card reform during an event in Washington, D.C.
Rep. Kevin Yoder poses with Sunayana Dumala (front), whose husband was murdered in a hate crime Yoder’s district last year, and other Indian born activists from the Kansas City area seeking green card reform during an event in Washington, D.C. McClatchy DC

As the Carolinas brace for Hurricane Florence, immigration lobbyists are pitching a plan to pay for disaster relief by charging high-skilled workers from India and China a fee to obtain green cards.

And they’re leaning hard on Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, to help.

Yoder has clout. He’s the chairman of the subcommittee that helps decide how much money the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which supervises any disaster relief effort, can receive.

Since last year, he’s championed legislation that would make it easier for immigrants from India and China to obtain green cards for permanent legal status in the United States.

Yoder’s office made no commitment to tying the legislation to disaster relief.

“We are still in the early stages of looking into this specific proposal, but we remain committed to ensuring that (a green card bill) gets across the finish line and becomes law,” Yoder’s spokesman C.J. Grover said in an email.

Immigration activists are optimistic that Yoder will sign on to the idea of coupling the immigration legislation with disaster relief.

“At the end of the day, Yoder has a massive hand here because he needs to write the FEMA legislation,” said Leon Fresco, the strategist and general counsel for Immigration Voice. “One way or another there’s no way this doesn’t go through Yoder.”

Green card applicants currently pay a $1,225 processing fee, but under this proposal green card applicants from certain countries could pay an additional fee to bypass the green card backlog. The money would be would be earmarked for disaster relief, which Fresco said would increase the chances of passing green card policy reforms.

An additional $1,500 green card fee for all employment-based Chinese and Indian immigrants would raise $1.5 billion over 10 years, according to an analysis by Immigration Voice. A fee of $2,500 would raise another $1 billion. FEMA’s disaster relief fund has about $26 billion.

Fresco’s organization is the main advocacy group pushing a bill to eliminate a per-country cap on green cards that prevent immigrants from countries with a high number of immigrants, such as India and China, from obtaining permanent legal status in the country.

Under the legislation, immigrants would be able to receive green cards based on the order they applied regardless of their country of origin.

Yoder began shepherding the legislation last year after the hate crime murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian-born engineer who lived in his district.

Yoder used his clout as subcommittee chairman earlier this year to add the proposal to the Department of Homeland Security budget bill, which is still pending in Congress.

Immigration Voice has previously floated the idea of using a fee to pay for President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall, but that idea failed to advance as Congress has not moved forward with special funding for the wall.

Abhay Sonawane, an environmental engineer who also lives in Overland Park and is currently on an H-1B visa, said the financial calculation of paying a green card fee is an easy one for his family.

As a visa holder, Sonawane must go through an expensive process to renew his visa every three years in order to remain in the country. He estimated that since 2003 he’s paid roughly $20,000 in legal fees to repeatedly renew his visa.

“If I have to maintain my status for the next 10 years or 15 years more, I’ll be spending another 20K and that money doesn’t go to the benefit of society. It just goes to the lawyers,” Sonawane said.

Every three years, his employer must re-advertise his position to see if any U.S. citizens qualify for his position as part of the renewal process. If his renewal application gets denied, he’d be forced to sell his house and return to India, Sonawane said.

Unlike a temporary visa, a green card would allow him to remain in the country permanently and would also offer him a path to citizenship.

Yoder voted against relief for the victims of Hurricane Harvey last year because it was tied to an increase of the debt ceiling. He could face a backlash from hardline conservatives if he seeks to tie the green card policy to disaster relief this year.

“Allowing temporary guest workers the opportunity to pay for green cards — no matter where the money goes — completely undermines the integrity of our immigration system,” said R.J. Hauman, government relations director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a conservative group that wants to reduce the overall rate of immigration.

“The last thing we need is another pay-for-play route to citizenship,” said Hauman, whose organization has ties to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the GOP nominee for Kansas governor who will appear alongside Yoder at the top of the ballot in November.

Hauman argued that removing per country caps would reduce the overall diversity of green card recipients and ensure that workers from India would “consume the lion’s share of the permanent skilled visas, creating a discriminatory system that favors a single foreign nation.”

Fresco rejected FAIR’s criticism, arguing that the immigrants from India and China who would be impacted already qualify for green cards and that the proposed fee would simply enable them to “pay for their place in line which they would have had if they were born in any other of 179 countries.”

Yoder is currently facing criticism from Democrats for his role in approving the transfer of $10 million from FEMA to U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement, a transfer that was revealed by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, on Tuesday’s broadcast of The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC.

The Department of Homeland Security has the power to shift funds within the department as long as it is approved by the budget subcommittee chairs in the House and Senate. The money from FEMA was part of a larger transfer of funds to ICE, the agency that enforces immigration laws.

Yoder’s campaign noted in a statement the money was designated for administrative costs and unrelated to the agency’s disaster relief fund.

Grover said Democrats “would rather see ICE abolished and money spent on paper clips and staplers in federal office buildings in Washington, DC than on keeping our nation safe by deporting dangerous criminals who are here illegally.”

Yoder was elevated to subcommittee chairmanship in May and has used his position to advance his immigration agenda. He added the green card legislation—a version that does not include the new fee proposal— to the larger Department of Homeland Security budget bill in July, a move intended to help ensure its passage.

At a reception hosted by Immigration Voice in Washington earlier this month, Yoder promised Congress would pass the green card legislation by the end of the year and that it would remain in the budget bill.

He framed the issue around Kuchibhotla’s widow, Sunayana Dumala, who saw her immigration status put in jeopardy after her husband’s murder.

“Sunayana’s here on an H1-B visa and if we don’t get this fixed, I fear she will never be an American citizen. That’s not fair. If she was from any other country in the world, she would be able to be a citizen someday,” Yoder told a crowd of roughly 100 immigrants from India, including several who reside in Yoder’s district.

Jay Indurkar said he has lived in the Kansas City area for two decades, including the past 12 years in Overland Park, the same suburb where Yoder resides.

“Twenty years for me is half my lifetime. It’s all the lifetime of my kids. I have two kids and they both were born here… So I’ve spent more time in the U.S. than I’ve spent in India and still am not able to call this my home,” Indurkar said at the reception.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Indurkar said he would be willing to pay the one-time fee to finally obtain a green card.

“This is something that shouldn’t be required because all we’re asking for is fairness, but if this helps our cause and helps Americans in need… My family supports it full-heartedly,” Indurkar said.

Bryan Lowry @bryanlowry3