Two weeks ago, the immigration world was abuzz due to the bipartisan support received for a narrow, extremely technical fix to employment- and family-based immigration quotas.  We learned yesterday, however, that one senator has blocked the bill from coming to a vote without substantial changes, making it extremely unlikely to be passed at all.  Hearing that reminded me of what may be the least effective legislature of all time, the Sejm of the 18th Century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in which any member could nullify the work of the whole session of the legislature by shouting, “Nie pozwalam!” (“I do not allow!”).  Here we are, back in the Sejm instead of the Senate, and a single member is effectively vetoing the entire legislature’s work.

The bill we are talking about is called HR3012, the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act.  The thing is, HR3012 does not add any new visas to address the quota backlogs for approved legal immigrants awaiting the availability of immigrant visas each year.  You read that correctly: HR 3012 would not allow in one more immigrant than current law allows.  It would merely change the rules of distributing our current quotas of new immigrants per year, allowing higher-skilled immigrants from India and China to wait the same length of time as higher-skilled immigrants from all the other countries in the world, and reducing the disparity in the family-based system between the worldwide backlogs and the longer backlogs faced by natives of Mexico and the Philippines.  (Readers interested in more detail can check out the National Foundation for American Policy’s incredibly detailed report on the quota backlogs.)

Legislation needs to pass through both the House and the Senate, however, before it can be presented to the President and become a law.  And in today’s Senate, it is becoming apparent that just one Senator can stop a bill from coming to a vote, even where the other 99 senators would agree with the 96% of the House that voted for the bill (The House voted overwhelmingly — 389-15– in favor of HR3012 two weeks ago).  The Senator blocking the bill is Charles Grassley (R-IA).

Senator Grassley has placed a “hold” on HR3012, preventing it from coming to the floor for a vote.  Senator Grassley released a statement saying that his hold was motivated by concern about “future immigration flows” and that “it does nothing to better protect Americans at home who seek high-skilled jobs” in today’s tough economy.  Here’s a reminder for Senator Grassley, however: every high-skilled immigrant affected by this bill has already been certified as filling an otherwise-empty vacancy in the US labor market, or having skills that are in our national interest to retain in the US.

Was the Senator concerned with the merits of the bill, about which I am rather agnostic?  The bill, after all, simply changes the rule of visa allocation to “first come, first served,” which certainly seems fair enough.  The primary question the bill addresses — given that it does not change the number of high skill immigrants allowed in per year — is whether a surgeon from India should have to wait 3-6 years for a green card, while an engineer from the Philippines or Germany doesn’t have to wait at all, as under current law, or whether the surgeon and the engineer should both have to wait 1-2 years.

Of course, Senator Grassley should know this, given that he is the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee and sits on the Immigration, Refugees and Border Security Subcommittee.  His real objection appears to be not to fairness in the process of allocating green cards for high skilled immigrants, but to the temporary visas companies and hospitals use to hire those high-skilled immigrants while they wait for their green cards.  Yesterday on the floor of the Senate, Senator Grassley said he was willing to release his hold, but only if HR3012 was changed substantially – eliminating any changes to family based visa allocation, being less fair to immigrants from India and China, and tacking on a package of onerous restrictions for temporary work visas – a package that the House and Senate have refused to consider a number of times over the past years.

Senator Grassley’s thwarting the will of the majority in pursuit of his own narrow vision of which immigrants should be allowed in to the United States highlights the dysfunction of today’s Senate.  That dysfunction has been noted elsewhere.  While such a procedural move may prevent the majority from considering a bill that a minority opposes, this “hold” is on a bill with a very limited effect – and with overwhelming, bipartisan support.  The lesson of the 18th century Sejm is instructive: paralyzed by vetoes, the legislature was unable to react to a changing world, and eventually their country was divided up between larger European powers.  If one Senator can stop even a legislative “tweak” like this from happening, I am not optimistic about our government’s ability to make laws to govern this country in the 21st century.