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August 6, 2020

After Legislative Maneuvers, Green Card Bill is Still Blocked

Legislative maneuvering on the Senate floor yesterday nearly resulted in the passage of S. 386, the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, until the potential opening was slammed shut by an objection from Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL).

For months, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) – the lead sponsor of S. 386 – has sought to pass his bill ending country caps on employment-based immigration, which he has advanced as a solution to fix the green card backlog primarily impacting Indian nationals. Rather than pass the bill through regular order, entailing a debate and mark-up in committee followed by debate on the Senate floor, Lee sought to pass the bill via a process known as unanimous consent. Effectively, a bill can be streamlined for immediate passage through the Senate provided that no other Senators object. However, it is a process that is typically reserved for noncontroversial bills, not for bills that make significant revisions to the immigration process like S. 386.

Initially, Lee’s unanimous consent request was blocked by Republican objections. However, since last fall, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has consistently objected to Lee’s efforts to pass the bill by unanimous consent. In doing so, Durbin has warned that the green card backlog cannot be cleared without making more green cards available, something that Congress hasn’t done in decades. For his stance, Durbin was subjected to a withering assault of baseless allegations from the advocacy group Immigration Voice, which slandered him as a racist despite his consistent pro-immigration stance. 

NIAC and a coalition of groups have supported Sen. Durbin’s objections, warning that Lee’s bill would not fix the green card backlog, and instead shift its burden onto other immigrant groups including Iranian nationals. Durbin has offered an alternative bill in the RELIEF Act (S. 2603) that would end the backlog in five years by making more green cards available, while also protecting communities who haven’t been subject to the backlog. Under Durbin’s proposal, the backlog would be cleared quickly, while under S. 386 it would continue to grow.

After new negotiations between Lee and Durbin, Durbin lifted his hold on S. 386 yesterday in exchange for some key concessions, including a one-year delay of implementation of the changes. This would be favorable for many individuals not currently subject to the backlog, as they would be able to plan accordingly and potentially speed up plans to secure a green card before being subjected to a backlog that could result in a 17-year waiting period.

However, with the primary Democratic opponent of Lee’s bill stepping aside, Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) prevented the bill from passing. Scott asked for unanimous consent on an amendment that appeared to carve out exceptions for Spanish speakers, which in turn was objected to by Lee. Having his proposal rejected, Scott then objected to unanimous consent on S. 386 and noted that the White House may have some concerns with the bill as well.

Speaking after the failure of the bill, Sen. Durbin regretted Scott’s objection but reiterated his view that it is impossible to address the green card backlog without making more green cards available. It is unclear whether Scott’s maneuver will hold or, if he lifts his objection, whether any other Senator will step forward and object to the bill moving forward for unanimous consent. Regardless, NIAC Action will continue to monitor the proceedings and fight for a fair solution that protects all immigrant communities.

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