Microsoft, Intel, Qualcomm push for immigration reform ahead of Senate debate

Scott Corley, executive director of Compete America, said to expect the tech industry to host more briefings on Capitol Hill for staffers about immigration legislation and how tech companies need it to fill thousands of job openings that require workers with advanced technical skills.

"We'll do this again, we'll do it in every kind of setting. We'll do it with anyone who wants to sit down," Corley said. "I'll meet with staff assistants, I'll meet with the interns — I don't care. We've got to get people in a position where they know what we're talking about."

During the briefing, economists Gordon Hanson and Matthew Slaughter presented findings of a report they published last month that cuts through some of the claims pushed by the AFL-CIO against tech-backed measures in the Senate bill, such as H-1B workers driving down wages for American tech workers. They argued that foreign workers in so-called STEM fields (science, tech, engineering and math) earn salaries that are level with American-born tech workers and that the unemployment rate for technical jobs has fallen sharply since the recession.

Hanson, a professor at the University of California at San Diego, said the wages for STEM workers have steadily risen over the past decade. He also argued that foreign STEM workers "beget more job growth."

"Increasing the number of STEM jobs that we have in the United States increases the likelihood that the next big thing happens here," Hanson said.

When fielding questions from Hill staffers, tech representatives argued that the current immigration system is obsolete and that the Senate bill would make it easier for them to hire top foreign talent.

They said the bill, for example, includes portability measures that would make it easier for foreign workers hired by an American tech company to work in different offices in the U.S. 

"We are competing globally now," said Ayush Soni, a government affairs analyst at chipmaker Qualcomm. "We're also now competing with Chinese companies, Taiwanese companies, Korean companies.  ... If we can't put a worker in San Diego or wherever our supply chips are, then they'll go and compete somewhere else."

"That's a very, very big detriment on our business," he said.

Bill Kamela, policy counsel at Microsoft, said the company currently has more than 6,000 jobs open that it is struggling to fill with qualified candidates.

"Just to be clear, the vast majority of folks we hire every year are Americans. We will hire thousands and thousands more Americans this year than we will bring in H-1Bs," Kamela said. "For our company, it is all about complementing and supplementing what is a largely American company. Over 90 percent of our workers are not H-1Bs."

Representatives from Intel, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments said they almost always file a green card for the foreign workers they hire on a temporary worker visa, known as an H-1B.

"All of our companies want people here on green cards" said Peter Muller, director of government relations at Intel.

"People recognize that [H-1Bs are] a critical part of the pipeline," Corley said.