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In our opinion: Immigration fiasco continues to complicate itself in political divide

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 5 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

In this June 5, 2010 file photo, Judy Schulz, center, cheers as her husband Richard Schulz, left, both of Glendale, Ariz., joined hundreds supporting Arizona's new law on illegal immigration as they listen to speakers near the capitol in Phoenix. At the heart of the debate over Arizona's tough new immigration law is frustration with how the U.S. deals with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants within its borders.

Ross D. Franklin, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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In politics, things generally are made to appear differently to the public than they really are.

Much is being made right now over a high-tech visa bill the House just passed, which would increase the number of visas granted each year to foreigners with graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering or math. High-tech industries have been pining for such a bill in order to help them compete internationally. The lack of qualified personnel in this country is an incentive for corporations to move operations offshore. It also makes little sense to educate such people in American universities, then send them home to compete against American companies.

But the bill Republicans passed through the House came with a catch. High-tech visas would increase by 55,000, but another program — one that grants 55,000 visas through a lottery aimed a countries that are under-represented among those that supply immigrants each year — would disappear.

That has the Democratic-controlled Senate up in arms, and it virtually guarantees the bill will go no further.

In reality, this is a tempest in a something a bit smaller than a tea kettle. The lottery visa, more commonly known as a diversity visa, affects an insignificant portion of the total annual legal immigration to the United States, which in 2011 was roughly 1.1 million. It was started in the late 1980s and aimed toward Eastern Europeans, whose homelands were in turmoil and who were under-represented among those entering the country.

Since then, some problems have emerged. First, Congress diverted about 5,000 of those visas annually to a different program that helps Central Americans. Second, the program is vulnerable to fraud. Applicants must register over the Internet, which is not available to many people in under-developed countries. Because of this, a "visa agent" industry has arisen, in which agents charge a fee to enter a person's name. Applicants need the equivalent of a high school degree and some work experience, which discriminates against the most needy immigrants. In one instance several years ago, an Egyptian woman obtained such a visa, and her husband ended up being a terrorist who killed two people in the Los Angeles International Airport.

Such instances are rare, and all visa applicants undergo background checks. But the program is of minor significance to the overall immigration picture, and it doesn't affect the nation's economy the way an expanded high-tech visa program would. Democrats look foolish for using it to thwart an important increase in high-tech visas, which they have publicly supported. Republicans, however, look equally foolish for including it in the bill, knowing it would cause Democrats to react as they have.

What Congress really needs to do, of course, is pass a comprehensive immigration bill that deals intelligently with illegal immigration, work visas and a host of issues, while allowing for more high-tech immigrants to feed growing industries.

As with most difficult things in Washington, that would take hard work, compromise and good faith. Until people in both parties catch that vision, most everything else is just sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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