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Congress sees eye to eye on helping one immigrant group -- entertainers
With support from both sides of the aisle, the House and Senate are working to clear
visa hurdles for fashion models, singers and pro athletes to enter the country.
By Nicole Gaouette, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
Twice in the last two years, Congress tried to overhaul the nation's immigration laws
and failed, leaving the explosive issue for dead. But during an election year in
which no action was expected, the House and Senate now are quietly helping certain
groups of immigrants favored by both ends of the political spectrum.
Even in polarized Washington, Democrats and Republicans can appreciate immigrants who
throw a fast pitch, have a beautiful face or sing a catchy song. Bills to make it
easier for athletes, fashion models and performers, such as British singer Amy
Winehouse, to work in the United States have enthusiastic support, even from some of
the most hard-nosed immigration critics.
Congress has been able to make incremental changes to immigration laws, despite its
overall paralysis, by focusing on narrow issues on which compromise proved possible.
Immigration bills still being considered in the House cover foreign students,
religious workers, foreign investors and relatives of a few illegal immigrants killed
in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Other measures are planned.
The reason these bills can be approved, said the subcommittee's chairwoman, Rep. Zoe
Lofgren (D-San Jose), is that they are more "housekeeping items" than substantial
reform. Though important, Lofgren said, the bills are not "part of the overall
immigration debate; therefore, the contentious nature of the discussion is less."
In 2007, the Senate failed to pass an enormous bill that sought to make changes to
border security, work site enforcement and a guest-worker program. It also would have
allowed illegal immigrants to gain legal status, a provision that led to the bill's
collapse after opponents labeled it amnesty.
Since then, Lofgren has steered the immigration subcommittee toward agreement on
small issues and, with Smith, passed the bills with wide support.
Foreign athletes who want to stay in the U.S. for many years say that it has gotten
more difficult. "Before 9/11, everyone understood that we're ballplayers and that we
needed papers to come here," said Chan Ho Park, the Dodgers pitcher from South Korea.
"After 9/11, they made it tighter and more difficult."
A bill sponsored by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Lakewood), a self-described "radical,
die-hard baseball fan," would ease restrictions on professional athletes by lifting
the 10-year cap on their visas. After 10 years on a P1 visa, professional athletes
have to either leave the country or become permanent residents, which is not easy for
minor league players.
On opening day this year, 28%% of major league players and 47.8%% of minor league
players were born outside the United States. "Baseball is a global game," said Jimmie
Lee Solomon, vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball. "There
could be quite a sizable segment of our players who would be forced to prematurely
cut off their careers, and that would be a detriment to the sport and all those who
love the game of baseball."
Supermodels, such as Brazil's Gisele Bundchen, can apply for visas for "aliens with
extraordinary ability" by submitting documentation that attests to their skills. But
in a real-life twist on the TV show "Beauty and the Geek," less established models
must vie for the same visas as highly skilled workers, such as engineers and
Only 65,000 of those H-1B visas are issued new every year, and high-tech companies
have lobbied Congress hard to get more, an unlikely prospect in an election year.
Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) proposed a solution that could address Silicon Valley's
hunger for skilled foreigners and benefit his city's fashion industry. His bill would
create a new category for those models, probably limited to about 1,000 five-year
visas, and would free up H-1B visas for more engineers.
Times staff writer Dylan Hernandez contributed to this report from Cincinnati.