Industry chafes at visa caps in Senate immigration bill

Business groups on Tuesday vowed to lobby for changes to the Senate’s carefully constructed immigration bill, including an increase in the number of visas for foreign workers.

Several trade associations spoke up on Tuesday after a summary of the Senate bill began circulating around Washington.

Many complained that the number of visas allotted to a new program for low-skilled workers was far too low. Lobbyists said they’d work to boost that figure as the legislation moves forward.

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“The number of visas seems fairly low at this point,” said Shawn McBurney, senior vice president of governmental affairs for the American Hotel & Lodging Association. “We hope to get those numbers to a more reasonable level that actually reflects the needs of the economy. It’s a start. ... They’re fairly arbitrary. It’s a political decision at this point.” 

The long-awaited bill from the Senate’s Gang of Eight, which will be rolled out on Wednesday, would create a new “W-Visa” for low-skilled workers. There will be a cap on the program, with 20,000 visas its first year; 35,000 the second year; 55,000 the third year; and 75,000 the fourth year.

Business lobbyists say expanded access to legal foreign workers is one of the most important elements of comprehensive immigration reform. Without it, lawmakers might have to look at fixing the immigration process again “because we are going to be in the same predicament in the next 10 to 15 years,” said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA.

“Our goal is to say the best antidote to illegal immigration is a legal immigration system that works,” Jacoby said. “The Gang of Eight proposal still needs work. It’s too small. ... This has the makings, though, of a really workable program with some improvements.” 

The visa program is based on an agreement reached between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO. Senators hoped a deal on visas from Washington’s biggest business lobby and the nation’s largest labor federation would tamp down opposition to the bill, but several lobbyists said they are turning to other senators and members of the House to change the program.

The construction industry is expected to be particularly aggressive in its lobbying efforts. Geoff Burr, vice president of federal affairs at the Associated Builders and Contractors, said he is pushing House lawmakers to avoid industry-specific carve-outs in the visa program.

The Senate bill singles out Burr’s industry by only allowing 15,000 visas for construction jobs per year.

“When you actually look at the construct of the new guest worker program, there’s a lot to like, and that’s why we are disappointed that we can’t use more of it,” Burr said. “This is a long process and we are committed to improving it. ... We also have a tremendous opportunity with the House bill.”

Lobbyists are also expecting the Senate to embrace electronic employee verification, known as “E-Verify,” as a new federal mandate. Most business groups are on board with the plan, but have stressed that there must be protections against liability for when there are glitches in the system.

“Few have seen the language yet, but there’s a understanding that there will be mandatory E-Verify. Most business groups are OK with that,” said Jacoby of ImmigrationWorks USA. “The question will be the liability provisions, but I have heard that they have done a good job on that, though there were some drafts that gave people heartburn along the way.” 

Lobbyists were passing around a 17-page summary of the Senate bill on Tuesday. Some business groups declined to comment when contacted by The Hill, saying they would wait until the full text of the legislation was released.

“Once the bill comes out and people can pore through the language, I think you’re going to see most business groups say this is a great first effort and we look forward to fixing it,” said one business group lobbyist. “Not many people are going to throw confetti when the text comes out.” 

Silicon Valley will also be looking for changes to the bill.

“There’s good stuff in there and a lot of problematic stuff,” one tech lobbyist said. 

The tech industry has been pushing lawmakers for years to increase the number of H-1B visas available to highly skilled and educated workers. The Senate bill would raise the cap on the visas from 65,000 to 110,000.

The bill would also expand the number of visas for foreign graduates of U.S. universities with advanced technical degrees that are exempt from the total visa cap, raising it to 25,000 from 20,000. There is also a mechanism that would allow the visa cap to expand to 180,000 based on market demand on a given year. 

“Any improvement at all is great,” the lobbyist said. 

Tech companies also lauded a provision of the bill that would allow spouses of H-1B recipients to work in the U.S. if the sending country of the worker provides the same treatment for U.S. workers. 

However, tech insiders said they were concerned that measures from legislation crafted by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) had been adopted in the Gang of Eight bill. Grassley’s measure is aimed at cutting down on fraud and abuse in the H-1B visa program by adding more enforcement and oversight measures.

“Any enforcement that makes the system too hard to use is in essence a prohibition,” said Scott Corley, executive director of Compete America. “We think they’re close. With some additional changes, we can get the right formula, but we’re not there yet.”

One sector, though, is looking to protect the Senate bill as it moves forward.

Agricultural trade groups had worked out a compromise late last week with senators and labor on provisions dealing with farm workers. That agreement would create a new, more flexible farm worker visa program and a pathway to legal status for unauthorized immigrant farm workers.

Craig Regelbrugge, vice president for government relations of the American Nursery & Landscape Association, said he understands that the deal will be slipped into the Senate bill. 

“We see this as a fair and balanced compromise and a compromise that we will look to defend,” Regelbrugge said. “We have clarity. We have predictability. And we can plan.”