The Hatch Amendment Compromise Is the Best News Yet for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Sen. Jeff Sessions and Sen. Orrin Hatch
Sen. Jeff Sessions and Sen. Orrin Hatch

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Scandalmania in D.C. continues to be excellent news for comprehensive immigration reform, which is benefiting from partisan attention being focused elsewhere. You can see how this is playing out in yesterday’s action in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Not only did the amended version of the Gang of 8’s immigration plan clear the committee 13–5 with three Republicans voting yes, but something particular happened on H1-B visas yesterday that really illustrates how the dynamics around this legislation are proceeding very differently than what we’ve come to expect from Obama-era legislation.

The key issue is this—senators disagreed about the merits of an issue, and  they struck a compromise whose goal was to advance their substantive objectives rather than to provide rationalizations for opposing a bill.

The basic issue is that the Gang of 8 immigration framework both expanded the H1-B skilled guest worker program and added some new hoops that companies have to jump through if they want to hire H1-B workers. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a longtime ally of the technology industry on this issue, had a couple of amendments that would basically pair those hoops back. Dick Durbin, a major ally of the union groups that don’t like H1-B but also a major ally of Latino advocacy organizations, did not like those amendments.

If this were the health care bill, the way it would have played out would have been that Hatch would be unable to get 100 percent of what he wanted and then that would have become a key talking point of his over why he can’t support the law. What happened instead is that Hatch and Durbin struck a compromise that advances the key interests of tech companies while retaining some of the protections that H1-B skeptics wanted. Hatch then voted for the bill, not promising to support final passage but saying that he wants the legislative process to move forward. The AFL-CIO criticized even the compromise version of the Hatch provisions as bad for America but did not say their inclusion is reason to oppose the overall framework. This is all, roughly speaking, how the legislative process in the United States is supposed to work. From Hatch’s viewpoint, the bill as compromised is clearly a step in the right direction on his pet issue. And for the AFL-CIO the bill as compromised is a step in the wrong direction on Hatch’s pet issue but is in line with labor’s bigger picture objectives. There’s some difference-splitting happening, but also some log-rolling—different people and different interests simply care about different things, and that’s what makes it possible to get 13–5 supermajorities for something even though there are lots of contentious specific elements.

Long story short, the H1-B saga hasn’t gotten the attention of a path to citizenship for currently present unauthorized residents of the United States or of LGBT equality in immigration issues, but it’s an important bellwether, and it shows that so far senators are working together constructively on “getting to yes” rather than finding reasons to block the process.