Four years ago, California Congressman David Dreier argued on the House floor that states should not have to pay to educate illegal-immigrant kids in public schools. "We are trying to decrease the magnet which draws people illegally into this country," said Dreier, a Republican then known as an immigration hard-liner. Now, however, Dreier is just as emphatically championing his bill to bring more foreigners into the U.S. to do high-tech jobs. "Without these professionals, the prosperity we are enjoying today will be threatened," he says.
Has Dreier changed his mind about the role of immigrants in this country? Absolutely not. He sees no contradiction--indeed no relationship at all--between his immigration positions and his effort to increase visas for high-tech guest workers. "It's a skilled-workforce bill, not an immigration bill," he says.
Until recently, Dreier and his fellow Republicans had managed to separate the two issues. Cash-rich, labor-hungry Silicon Valley companies have been pushing Congress to make it easier to import programmers and engineers rapidly. To satisfy the Valley, Congress wants to raise the cap on so-called H-1B visas for the second time in two years.
Last month Republicans, Democrats and the White House seemed to be onboard behind the increase. Committees in both houses of Congress passed bills raising the cap by differing amounts. Then the Clinton Administration, eyeing a window of political opportunity, upped the ante last month, proposing also to grant legal status to some illegal aliens. It's about "fairness and equity," says Gene Sperling, director of President Clinton's National Economic Council. Key Democrats quickly adopted the initiative, targeted at immigrants from Central America and Haiti living in the U.S.
Republicans suddenly find themselves in a tough spot: they desperately want to boost the politically palatable H-1B visas, which go to educated people classified as temporary workers (though almost half apply to stay before they reach their six-year limit, according to estimates). But the traditional anti-immigrant politicians shrink from the prospect of linking the visas to a provision embracing illegal (and often likely Democratic) immigrants--even though low-skilled workers are also in demand. Then again, rejecting the amnesty proposal could alienate immigrant voters during an election year. Says Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration group: "You have a battle between the two parties for who has an advantage with new money and who has an advantage with new voters." In the end, Congress will probably approve more visas. But it won't be pretty. Says a frustrated G.O.P. aide: "This is no longer about a narrow economic issue that the high-tech guys think is important, but a political football. It reeks of partisan gamesmanship."
--By Amanda Ripley. With reporting by Elaine Shannon and Anne Moffett/Washington