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Immigration: Minnesota lawmakers try to balance path to citizenship with need for workers

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President Barack Obama
In this photo taken Feb. 5, 2013, President Barack Obama makes a statement during a press conference at the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC. Obama will deliver the State of the Union address tonight. The speech is expected to focus on jobs and the economy, but the subject of overhauling the nation's immigration laws is almost certain to come up.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Barack Obama is set to deliver the first State of the Union address of his second term tonight in Washington.

While the White House says the speech will focus on jobs and the economy, the subject of overhauling the nation's immigration laws is almost certain to come up. It's an issue likely to dominate the Congressional agenda through the summer.

Much of the immigration debate so far has focused on what to do with the 11 million people who live in the United States illegally. Getting Congress to pass a bill requires building a political coalition across party lines.

While liberals want a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, others, such as the business community, want to make it easier to hire foreign workers.

One of the lawmakers trying to balance those concerns is DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is pushing to allow more highly-skilled immigrants into the country, especially those with backgrounds in technology and science. She acknowledges the link between illegal immigration and foreign workers.

"If we're going to cut down on illegal immigration — which we must do, through employer verification, order at the border — we also have to make the legal immigration system move more smoothly," Klobuchar said.

Minnesota Democrats with Obama
In this photo taken on Feb. 4, 2013, President Barack Obama walks off Air Force One with Democratic members of Minnesota's congressional delegation including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, left, Sen. Al Franken and and Rep. Betty McCollum, right, at Minneapolis St.Paul International Airport. Klobuchar is pushing to allow more highly-skilled immigrants into the country, especially those with backgrounds in technology and science. She acknowledges the link between illegal immigration and foreign workers.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

She recently introduced legislation with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to increase the number of H-1B visas for highly skilled workers from 65,000 a year to as many as 300,000 a year over the next several years.

While Klobuchar's legislation has broad, bipartisan support in the Senate, there are critics. Ross Eisenbrey, a vice president at the liberal Economic Policy Institute , worries that expanding the H-1B system, which ties visa-holders to their employers, will harm American workers by pushing down high-tech wages.

"When you indenture people, when you don't give them the freedom that every other worker has to say, 'I want a better deal than the one that I've got,' then you are damaging the labor market," Eisenbrey said.

Klobuchar said her legislation will give foreign workers more chances to change jobs than the current system. She argues the program has not harmed wages.

"There's existing protections in the law that companies have to pay prevailing wages," she said.

Also in Klobuchar's bill is a provision that makes it easier for foreigners with advanced degrees from American universities to stay in the U.S. after graduation.

"If we're going to cut down on illegal immigration — which we must do, through employer verification, order at the border — we also have to make the legal immigration system move more smoothly."

One Minnesota lawmaker who has some experience with guest worker programs in other countries is 8th District DFL Rep. Rick Nolan, who lived in Abu Dhabi in the Persian Gulf for several years. He said guest workers with visas tied to their jobs were common there and they did not have many rights.

He backs increasing the H-1B visa limits but wants to make sure Americans gets a fair crack at those jobs first. However, Nolan said immigration isn't getting a lot of attention in his sprawling, mostly rural district.

"It's not a big issue, quite frankly, in the 8th District in the way that it is in, say, the metropolitan areas of Minneapolis and Saint Paul," he said.

Just a few years ago, immigration, specifically illegal immigration was a big issue even in Minnesota. While the state has relatively few illegal immigrants — roughly 85,000 according to a recent study from the Pew Research Center — illegal immigration was a topic that animated some of the state's Republican lawmakers.

Republican Reps. John Kline and Michele Bachmann have both campaigned on platforms of preventing illegal immigrants from gaining residency or citizenship. Neither lawmaker responded to interview requests and they both have stayed quiet during the current debate.

Minnesota's third Republican House member, Erik Paulsen, said he is open to giving illegal immigrants citizenship or permanent residence.

"It's not a realistic proposition to round up 11 million people and send them out of the country," Paulsen

Paulsen also backs legislation like Klobuchar's to increase the supply of engineers and programmers from abroad, workers who are vital to the big companies based in his suburban district.

Immigration boosters say that it isn't just companies and the immigrants themselves who will benefit from any legislation that makes it through Congress.

While Minnesota has fewer foreign-born residents than the national average — 7.4 percent compared to 12.9 percent national rate according to Pew Research Center — they play an important role in the state's future, said Bill Blazar at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

"Their presence, believe it or not, really helps us see and be seen as part of the world economy," Blazar said.

Without the connections to the rest of the world that immigrants bring, the state would be a poorer place, he said.