Bipartisan group of senators to introduce high-skilled immigration bill

A bipartisan group of senators is poised to introduce a high-skilled immigration bill next week that would significantly increase the number of H-1B visas available to skilled foreign-born workers, such as engineers and computer programmers.

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A current draft of the bill obtained by The Hill proposes to increase the cap for H-1B visas to 115,000 from the current cap of 65,000. It would also create a "market-based H-1B escalator" that would allow for additional visas to be made available to foreign workers if the cap is hit early during a particular year—though it can only hit a ceiling of 300,000 visas. The escalator would adjust up or down, depending on the demands of the market.

Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) are co-sponsors of the bill, according to the obtained draft. Hatch told The Hill that the co-sponsors are aiming to file the bill next Tuesday. It will be the first immigration bill introduced this year as Congress is gearing up for a long battle over comprehensive immigration reform.

When asked why he decided to focus on reforming the H-1B program first, Hatch said he believed passing such a measure is "very doable" and may encourage other members to support other immigration reform efforts in the future.

"I think we need to break the ice and let people know that this is the art of the doable... at least I think it's very doable and I think everybody ought to come on [to support it] because it makes sense and it's a bipartisan bill already," Hatch said. "If we put that through that says to them, well maybe we can do more and if we can do more, I'm going to be right there helping."

The bill, currently titled the Immigration Innovation Act, will likely earn support from the tech industry, which has called on Washington for years to pass high-skilled immigration reform. Tech companies, such as Microsoft and Intel, have argued that they struggle to fill positions for engineering and research jobs because of there is a lack of qualified applicants for those positions. They also say the existing immigration rules force them to lose these skilled workers to competitors abroad.

The tech industry relies on the H-1B program to hire foreign workers for jobs that require advanced technical skills, such as scientists, engineers or programmers. 

Hatch said there may be pushback from groups upset with the bill's aim to increase the number of H-1B visas for immigrants, but he "doubted it" because the measure will help boost the U.S. economy. 

"We know that we've created all kinds of efforts against ourselves by educating people and not allowing them to stay here when they wanted to," Hatch said. "And we ought to keep these master's degrees and Ph.D.s that can help us to regenerate our business community and our economy, and this bill will help us to do that."

The bill would also remove the cap that limits the number of H-1B visas that a American employer can apply for in order to hire foreign graduates with advanced degrees from U.S. universities. That cap is currently limited to 20,000 visas a year.

Notably, the current draft of the bill authorizes dependent spouses of H-1B visa holders to work in the U.S. The issue has typically been a thorny one in previous years.

The bill also attempts to reduce the backlog for green cards by exempting certain groups of people from the employment-based green card cap, such as dependents of employment-based visa recipients, "outstanding professors and researchers," and foreign-born gradates from U.S. universities with advanced degrees in math, science and engineering. It would also eliminate the per-country caps on employment-based green cards.

Additionally, the bill proposes to increase the fees that employers would have to pay to petition for H-1B visas and employment-based green cards. The additional money from these fees will go towards a grant program dedicated to promoting education in the so-called STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math—and "worker retraining" at the state-level, according to a one-page summary of the bill. 

Spokespeople for the bill co-sponsors did not respond to requests for comment.

This post was updated at 9:05 p.m.