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Obama's immigration actions neglect business pleas

| Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014, 8:33 p.m.

WASHINGTON — President Obama's executive actions on immigration left out some of the business community's top priorities, disappointing business leaders who might have stepped up to defend his policies in the face of Republican attacks.

Months of lobbying by high-tech businesses failed to persuade the administration to make allotted but unused green cards available for foreign workers — probably the top item on the executive action agenda for business.

And the Obama administration only partially answered pleas to increase the length of time that foreign students can stay in the United States before or after graduating to work in their fields. The administration announced plans to expand the program at some point, but it offered no details on timing or scope.

Business lobbyists contended that these and other “asks” were fairly modest to begin with, since all acknowledged that the big-ticket items on their agenda — such as increasing the number of high-tech visas available for foreign workers — could be done only by Congress.

Even so, they were deflated to find their priorities overlooked as Obama announced plans to curb deportations for 4.5 million people in the country illegally and make them eligible for work permits.

“We didn't ask for the moon to begin with. There's just not an opportunity for the administration to deliver the moon for us — that's a congressional action,” said Scott Corley, executive director of Compete America, which represents high-tech companies including Google, Intel and Microsoft. “But we asked for some terrestrial things, things within reach, and we didn't see the detail we hoped for.”

A White House spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who represents the Silicon Valley, said Obama was constrained by the legal advice he received.

“There's what you want, and what's possible to do, and people do understand that what you might want him to do is constrained by the law,” Lofgren said.

Lofgren had been among those saying Obama could take executive action to allow businesses to “recapture” permanent resident green cards that had been authorized by Congress but never issued. Obama can't issue green cards on his own, but business officials say that more than 200,000 that have already been authorized by Congress never have been distributed, and the administration could redistribute them.

The administration did not take that step. Instead, Obama directed the secretaries of the State and Homeland Security departments to come up with recommendations within 120 days to ensure that all the green card visas allotted by Congress get used.

A senior administration official briefing reporters on the announcement last week said the White House and Homeland Security Department had looked at the green card recapture issue but determined that the time period for issuing the visas had passed. The official said the administration hasn't given up on taking action on the issue in the future.

With congressional Republicans vowing to try to overturn Obama's executive actions, full-throated backing from the business community could have provided some insulation for the administration. Instead, a number of business leaders were lukewarm in their public remarks.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue said in a statement that “executive actions cannot adequately fix our broken immigration system, and they raise important legal and constitutional questions.”

Among the other business-specific changes the administration made: —Directed expanded use of a “national interest waiver” that allows green cards to foreigners with exceptional abilities.

—Announced a new program to allow inventors, researchers and startup founders to stay in the U.S. in a provisional “parole” status.

—Announced plans to make it easier for people in the U.S. on high-tech work visas to change jobs.

—Renewed previously announced promises to allow work authorization to spouses of high-tech visa holders.

In some cases, such as the planned expansion of a program allowing foreign students and graduates to work in the U.S. for a year or more, business buy-in will depend on the details of what the administration ends up announcing.

“It's still not at a fully baked stage, so I can't say they delivered for business, but they still could,” said Bob Sakaniwa, associate director for advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

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