Composite photo: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News; John Locher, Associated Press
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, (left) and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., (right) introduced the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act in February, an issue Lee has worked on since being elected to the Senate in 2010.

SALT LAKE CITY — A fellow conservative Republican dealt a blow to Sen. Mike Lee’s nearly nine-year effort to end what he calls a “Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley-era” aspect of federal immigration law.

The Utah Republican said it was “greatly disappointing" that Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s objection Thursday blocked his bill to end per-country caps on employment-based green cards from advancing by unanimous consent.

It only takes one objection under Senate rules to stop a request for unanimous consent to bring legislation forward.

Lee said an amendment Paul proposed would not be compatible with his bipartisan legislation and cause it to fail.

"This is by far the closest we have ever come to having a deal, and we’ve achieved that deal by keeping this bill focused on the very things this legislation deals with," Lee said. "We have an opportunity to pass this. This could pass this body right now."

Lee and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., introduced the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act in February, an issue Lee has worked on since being elected to the Senate in 2010. He called it an "important point of common ground" between Republicans and Democrats who can't agree on how to fix the country's immigration system.

Under current law, "rigid, arbitrary, antiquated, outdated" quotas limit immigrants in any given country to no more than 7 percent of the total number of visas allocated, Lee said on the Senate floor.

As a result, immigrants from nations with large populations have significantly longer wait times to get a green card than do immigrants from smaller countries.

"In some cases, they can be stuck in a backlog of green card petitions for decades," Lee said, calling the system "unfair" and "un-American."

"This is one of the many features of Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley-era immigration code that is outdated and needs to be cast into the dustbin of history," he said.

The bill would increase the per-country caps for family-sponsored green cards from 7% to 15%. Without adding any new green cards, it creates a first-come, first-served system that alleviates the backlogs and allows green cards to be awarded more efficiently, according to Lee.

While employment-based green cards are supposed to go to highly skilled immigrants who help grow the economy, the caps "distort" the system by causing some them to wait years for reasons unrelated to their qualifications, Lee said.

"This undermines our ability to bring the best and brightest individuals to our country," He said. "It’s to our harm and it’s to our own shame."

Lee said it also forces immigrants — 95% of whom are already in the U.S. — to decide whether to stay waiting for decades for a green card or "take their talents" to a country that has a more fair process to become a legal permanent resident.

Immigrant parents who can only get temporary visas for their children also have to choose between sending their children home while waiting for a green card or give up all together, he said.

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Because immigrants in the backlog are severely limited in their ability to change jobs, the per-country caps often force them to work under conditions that other employees would "justifiably, understandably find just completely unacceptable" and exposes them to harassment, exploitation and abuse, Lee said.

Lee said the bill stalled in the past because some lawmakers believed that changes in the employment-based visa system must include protections against fraud in the H 1-B visa program employers use to hire immigrants who graduate from U.S. colleges. Those protections, he said, are included in an amendment to the legislation.

"This is a narrow, surgical reform, one that is necessary, one that is palatable, one that is long overdue," Lee said of his bill.