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The Hill: Little-noticed Schumer immigration amendment wins support from NAACP

WASHINGTON – A little-noticed amendment from Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is winning support from the NAACP and other civil rights groups that have been cool to the underlying immigration reform bill.

The civil rights groups have worried the Senate immigration bill would make it tougher for people from Africa and the Caribbean to immigrate to the country.

Schumer’s amendment, added by voice vote during the panel’s weeks-long mark up, would make nationals of African and Caribbean countries that use U.S. trade benefits eligible for nonimmigrant visas. That could allow more people from those regions to immigrate to the U.S.

The NAACP wants to change the Senate bill approved by the Judiciary Committee this week in a 13-5 vote, but it has called Schumer’s amendment “a healthy step forward.”

“It doesn't fully solve our problem but it's a helpful step forward,” Hilary Shelton, the NAACP Washington bureau director, told The Hill.

“We lobbied for an opportunity to make up for the deficit of losing diversity visas. … This is one of the tools that have been put in the place. We were very happy to see that,” he said.

The change could also buy goodwill from the Congressional Black Caucus, a key group in the House.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), co-chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus’s (CBC) immigration reform taskforce, said the caucus was evaluating Schumer’s measure but said it was “a very significant step in the right direction.”

“A comprehensive immigration bill must provide an adequate vehicle to insure people from all over the world, including from Africa and the Caribbean, can have access to the American dream. The Schumer amendment appears to address that concern,” Jeffries said.

The CBC, NAACP and other groups have been upset over the Senate bill’s elimination of the “diversity visa” program, which African and Caribbean immigrants often used to get to the U.S.

Diversity visas total about 55,000 per year and are made available to countries that have low U.S. immigration rates and are awarded via a lottery. Nationals from Bahrain to Samoa can apply, but several of the visas are given to African and Caribbean immigrants each year.

The Senate bill has sought to replace the program with a merit-based visa program, where immigrants would earn points towards getting a visa based on their education, family relations and other data. The new program would make 120,000 visas available per year, and could rise to a ceiling of 250,000, depending on demand and unemployment here in the United States.

Civil rights advocates haven't been convinced that merit-based visas were a suitable replacement for diversity visas. But Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Schumer’s amendment made “significant progress” after the loss of diversity visas.

Henderson described the measure from Schumer as “a sophisticated response.”

“You can examine the Schumer proposal with empirical evidence and see that we have made significant progress in regrouping from the loss of diversity visas,” Henderson said.

Jeffries said the CBC didn’t work directly with Schumer on the amendment but that their concerns were made known to several senators.

The measure would allow nationals of countries that benefit from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) or the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act (CBERA) eligible for E nonimmigrant visas.

African countries eligible under AGOA include Angola, Cameroon and Senegal. Aruba, the Bahamas, Jamaica and several other Caribbean nations are listed as “beneficiary countries” for CBERA.

Not everyone is on board with Schumer’s amendment. Bertha Lewis, president of the Black Institute, said other countries, not just from Africa and the Caribbean, use diversity visas.

“We welcome them welcoming these black immigrants but this is not a zero-sum game,” Lewis said. “Why create these false schisms between immigrants from different countries? You don't need to get rid of diversity visas.”

Diversity visas are also in danger in the House.

House Republicans have targeted the diversity program for elimination. This week, Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) introduced legislation that would boost the number of visas for high-skilled workers — long desired by Silicon Valley — but end diversity visas.

Henderson said the Senate bill could go further on stopping profiling of immigrants based on their national origin and religion. In addition, the bill doesn't allow same-sex couples to sponsor partners for green cards.

“The Senate bill is a significant step forward but it is not without its problems,” Henderson said.

Jeffries said the House negotiators working on their own immigration reform bill know the CBC’s concerns about diversity visas.

“It is our hope that those concerns will be addressed in the work product that the House produces and to the extent that it is not, we'll comment further at the appropriate time,” Jeffries said.