H-1B visa cap battle looms on the horizon

A battle over expanding the H-1B visa cap is looming in the debate over high-skilled immigration.

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A bill introduced by a bipartisan group of senators this week—called the Immigration Innovation Act, or I-Squared for short—includes a measure that would increase the H-1B visa cap to 115,000 from the current cap of 65,000.

Lawmakers and some labor groups have criticized the H-1B temporary worker visa program in the past. Proposals to expand the visa cap were a sticking point the last time Congress tried to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2007. That fight is expected to be revived as the Senate begins its work on crafting a comprehensive immigration bill.

The tech industry has relied on the H-1B program to hire foreign workers for jobs that require advanced technical skills, including scientists, engineers or computer programmers. Industry groups that want Congress to boost the number of H-1B visas are already bracing themselves for the long road ahead.

“We're very concerned, but I’m also optimistic that we can sit down, and with the help of other interested parties, reach some reasonable common ground on the issue of temporary visas,” said Scott Corley, executive director of Compete America, a coalition that advocates for high-skilled immigration reform.

“What we can't do is work with someone who refuses to put down the sledgehammer and pick up a scalpel, especially when so much is at risk economically,” he added.

Tech companies say the cap needs to be expanded because companies keep hitting it earlier and earlier each year. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services starts accepting petitions for H-1B visas in the beginning of April each year. Last year, the 65,000 H-1B cap for 2013 was reached in a little more than two months.

Tech companies also argue that the H-1B program allows them to hire foreign workers for critical projects in a timely manner. This saves them from having to go through a lengthy waiting period, which is key for an industry that evolves at a break-neck pace,

"Time is a big issue," said Peter Muller, director of government relations at Intel. "That has a real consequence for us, so anything that puts too much time delay on a visa is a big concern of ours. That's why [the] H-1B [program] is so important."

The I-Squared bill also includes a mechanism that would allow for more H-1B visas to be made available based on market demand, but it can only hit a ceiling of 300,000 visas.

“Each year, that's something we've thought would make sense,” Muller said.

The bill was introduced this week by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.). In total, the bill has 14 co-sponsors.

As major tech companies clamor for more H-1B visas, others believe the program needs major reform and has been abused by some companies to hire and train foreign workers in the U.S. and eventually outsource them abroad.

Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) have been critical of the program, arguing that some employers have abused it to bypass hiring American workers. In previous sessions, the two have jointly introduced legislation aimed at reforming the program so it has additional oversight and enforcement mechanisms that ensure employers are following the rules.

Observers expect the two senators will introduce a similar measure this year.

A spokeswoman for Grassley said the Iowa Republican understands the need for high-skilled workers and noted that he tried to bring up a House-passed high-skilled immigration bill by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) in the Senate last year. The move was blocked by Senate Democrats in part because they wanted to push comprehensive immigration reform in 2013.

Still, Grassley has concerns about the H-1B program.

“He has long argued for enhanced and expanded legal avenues for U.S. employers to hire foreign workers. However, he is just as concerned about including protections for American workers and reforms to root out fraud and abuse from the high-skilled visa programs, like the H-1B program,” the senator’s spokeswoman said. “He appreciates the proposals on the different aspects of immigration reform that are being put forward and will evaluate each one as it is introduced.”

IEEE-USA, a trade association that represents engineers and scientists in Washington, has signaled that it has concerns with the H-1B measure in the I-Squared bill. However, the group emphasized that it supports the provisions in the bill that are aimed at freeing up more green cards for graduates from U.S. universities with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines.

“Any system for adding skilled workers to our economy should be based on citizenship. IEEE-USA supports provisions in S. 169 to expand green cards for advanced-degree STEM graduates of our higher-education institutions to become citizens. Doing so will strengthen our economy and create American jobs,” said IEEE-USA President Marc Apter in a statement to The Hill.

“The businesses that will most benefit from an expansion of the H-1B program are outsourcing companies – businesses which exist to replace American workers with lower-cost foreign nationals and move jobs out of the country, and that is not the American way of immigrating citizens,” he continued.

A green card, or a permanent resident card, authorizes a person to live and work in the U.S. on a permanent basis, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Many green card holders are sponsored by an employer based in the U.S.

Tech companies argue that they have struggled to fill positions for engineering and research jobs because of a lack of qualified applicants. They say the existing immigration rules make it hard for them to keep top foreign talent in the U.S., so those educated STEM graduates and skilled workers are forced to move abroad, taking their skills and job-creating potential with them.

Expanding the number of green cards available for skilled workers is key to addressing this problem, but increasing the H-1B cap is just as critical, they argue.

Intel’s Muller said the company “almost immediately” applies for a green card once they secure an H-1B visa for a foreign employee.

“That H-1B is a vital bridge to get him to the point where we can get a green card for the employee, so we need it under the layered system that works today,” he said.

Trade groups that represent tech companies say they are open to considering some enforcement measures to the H-1B program, but not at the expense of moving jobs offshore.

“The fundamental issue is the need to fill jobs in this country and to have a pipeline that would allow for more work and skilled work to be done in the U.S., and the H-1B [program] is part of that pipeline,” said Robert Hoffman, senior vice president of government relations at the Information Technology Industry Council, which counts Google, Apple and Intel as members. “There are tens of thousands of jobs that are open and are not filled. Microsoft has 6,000 job openings.”

Hoffman said the key to passing high-skilled immigration reform this year is finding the “right balance where we're filling jobs in this country and creating more jobs for American workers.”