Report: Senate plan could double visas for high-skilled immigrants

A bipartisan Senate immigration plan could double the number of visas granted for high-skilled foreign workers, a victory for the tech industry, which has pushed for the reforms.

The number of H-1B visas would double from a current limit of 65,000 per year, according to a report Thursday in The Washington Post. The immigration plan would also grant permanent legal residency to foreign students who graduate from American universities with science, engineering or technology degrees.

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Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), part of the Senate immigration group, is pushing for restrictions on the plan, including measures to prevent some firms that are heavily dependent on H-1B visas from hiring more workers and requirements for companies to make efforts to hire American workers first.  

The talks on high-skilled-worker visas are just one element of a comprehensive immigration reform plan being finalized by the Senate’s bipartisan Gang of Eight.

The group unveiled a framework calling for heightened border security, a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country and the creation of a guest worker program and increased high-skilled immigration in January. But negotiations over the details of that plan have delayed senators from offering a bill, though sources say they expect draft language by the end of March.

On the House side, another bipartisan group is also nearing a deal, with leaders from both parties endorsing the efforts. 

Major tech companies have made a strong push for Washington to revamp immigration rules for high-skilled workers.

Last week, in a letter to President Obama and lawmakers, a number of high-profile CEOs, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, said that being able to hire more high-skilled workers and retain foreign students enrolled in U.S. schools is key to keeping American companies globally competitive. Tech companies fear that American schools are failing to produce enough graduates with advanced science and engineering degrees.

Two Senate bills would expand the H-1B visa program. In January, Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced the Immigration Innovation Act, which would increase the number of visas to 115,000. 

The measure would also allow greater flexibility, by allowing for additional visas to be granted up to a limit of 300,000 if the initial cap is surpassed.

The Startup Act, introduced by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), addressed the issue by creating a new visa that would allow foreign science and tech graduates of U.S. universities to apply for a green card.

Proponents of increased high-skilled immigration, however, believe the best change for reforming the H-1B laws is through a comprehensive package.

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