WASHINGTON - Despite support from both parties, major high-tech visa legislation has hit a wall in Congress: Democrats' desire to include changes in immigration rules to make it easier for some Central Americans and longtime illegal aliens to gain citizenship.
The stalemate has angered both wealthy Silicon Valley sources of political donations and Hispanics who say they hold a trump card in November's elections.
There's widespread support in Congress for issuing more H-1B visas, which let college-educated foreigners work up to six years in the United States. But the future of the visa bill, once considered a certainty to become law this year, is doubtful now that Congress has only a month to complete its work when lawmakers return after Labor Day from their party conventions.
Republicans blame the legislation's fate on Democrats' advocacy of temporarily relaxed citizenship rules for some Hispanics. Democrats argue it's only fair to help people at both ends of the economic spectrum.
Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., who joined Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., on one of the H-1B bills, said it was unfortunate that the issue ``has been overtaken by transparent election-year politics which place short-term partisan goals over important national economic needs.''
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said Republicans, as the majority party, can move the H-1B bill in any form they want. He said he's disappointed that ``Republicans are beginning to play the blame game over who lost H-1B.''
Immigration issues don't have to be part of the H-1B measure, but the GOP leadership must not ignore them, Lofgren said. ``The Latino community is very focused on this,'' she said.
Under current law, 115,000 H-1B visas were available in the current fiscal year ending Sept. 30. The number drops to 107,500 in 2001 and to 65,000 the following year. The National Association of Manufacturers says the limit for this year was reached in March, which left U.S. companies unable to fill crucial jobs, ``threatening U.S. performance in the global economy.''
A Senate bill offered by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., would raise the ceiling to 195,000 a year for three years and direct visa fee money to training U.S. workers. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's immigration panel, would remove all caps for three years. The Dreier-Lofgren bill would cap visas at 200,000 through fiscal 2003 and fund training programs.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said the House can pass an H-1B bill this year if ``we keep extraneous issues out of it.''
But the White House, backed by Democrats, said this spring it wants immigration legislation this year to include more than H-1B. Currently, illegal aliens must prove they have lived in the United States since 1972 to apply for permanent residence. They want that changed to 1986.
The White House also wants to extend to Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans and Haitians a 1997 law that offered permanent residence to Cubans and Nicaraguans who were escaping strife in their homelands.
Smith said those steps would result in amnesty for up to 2 million illegal aliens.
``Amnesty is a catalyst for illegal entries,'' Smith said. ``A little bit goes a long way toward encouraging people to enter illegally and wait for the next amnesty.''
But Lofgren, whose San Jose district has both a significant high-tech presence and a significant Hispanic population, said taking up H-1B without considering the other issues in some form ``will mean thousands of honorable persons in the United States living lives in limbo.''
On the Senate side, Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., are working on the possibility of raising the immigration issues as amendments to an education bill.
Hispanic groups are lobbying hard for the more comprehensive bill and have made clear the outcome could affect votes in November.
``Latinos are a very critical voting bloc,'' said Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic activist group. ``Both parties need to stand up to the plate and show they are interested in our issues.''