BOSTON — Rep. Lamar Smith sees the current fuss in Congress over extra visas for foreign, high-skilled technology workers as an opportunity to tackle something far more important.
It could, says the Texas Republican, lead to legislation making the immigration policy of the United States more economically sensible.
That policy should give priority to admission of those with a high school education or better, says Mr. Smith, who chairs the House Immigration and Claims Subcommittee. Such immigrants are less likely to need government assistance.
"Our challenge is to maximize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of immigrants so that those admitted are able to work, produce, and contribute to American communities," he says.
At present, 87 percent of immigrants enter without regard to skill or education. They come in as relatives of those already here.
The remaining 13 percent get green cards under special job-related programs.
In addition, the H-1B program provides temporary visas for technology workers and others with at least a bachelor's degree.
It is a controversial program.
The electronics industry is pushing for an increase in the present 65,000 per year cap on H-1B visas. It maintains there is a severe and growing shortage of computer specialists. Universities also use H-1B visas to bring in foreign specialists to do research or teach on a short-term basis - a three-year visa renewable for another three years.
The AFL-CIO opposes it.
"The real issue [is] whether or not American employers and the American government consider American workers valuable enough to afford them the opportunity to train for and get well-paying, secure jobs," David Smith, the labor federation's policy director, told the immigration subcommittee last week.
Congressman Smith disagrees. He expects to mark up a bill Thursday to raise the visa cap to 90,000.
It will also include some new safeguards against companies using H-1B workers to replace or substitute for Americans who could do the job with some training. Smith hopes thereby to win assent from the AFL-CIO and the Labor Department.
"I am hoping we will have a bipartisan bill," he says in a telephone interview. But H-1B workers are "a minuscule part of the work force."
Smith has bigger fish in mind: a bill that would raise the average education level for the bulk of the million immigrants arriving legally each year.
In 1996, Smith helped guide through Congress a bill aimed at shrinking illegal immigration. These illegals are estimated to number 300,000 a year. The bill doubled the border patrol force and made smugglers of aliens subject to the stiff penalties of the racketeering law.
But Smith was blocked by pro-immigration lobbies in one major goal. He wanted to shrink the number of legal immigrants to 600,000 a year from about 1 million in recent years. That number would have remained well above the average 400,000 per year entering from 1900 to 1990.
With many new Americans voting, the Republicans did not want to be seen as anti-immigrant.
Smith now plans another crack at immigration reform. But he won't try to reduce the number of immigrants again. And he won't change the central goal of immigration policy since 1965 of family reunification. But his planned bill will propose that, if there is a lineup of 4 million foreigners seeking visas, spouses and minor children will get top priority. Then those other relatives with high school education or better will get priority.
At present, 400,000 immigrants entering each year have less than a high school education. This has depressed the wages of Americans with similar education levels by $1,900 a year, studies indicate.
Smith cites a study indicating that 19 million new jobs will be created by 2000, with 92 percent of them requiring at least a high school education.
"It will be tough going for low-skilled Americans," he says. And if the education levels of immigrants aren't raised, tough going for business too.