Unions rip Schumer’s deal on H-1B visas

A deal struck Tuesday to secure Republican support for the Senate immigration bill has set off a war of words between labor unions and the tech industry.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the chamber’s Gang of Eight, secured a compromise on a package of tech-friendly amendments by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) after days of back-and-forth negotiations. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the compromise language on Tuesday.

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The deal was a coup for the tech industry, which had been lobbying aggressively behind the scenes to build support for Hatch’s proposals on H-1B visas. It was also a step forward for members of the Gang of Eight, who see Hatch’s support as key to securing votes from other on-the-fence Republican senators.

“We think what Sens. Hatch and Schumer have agreed on strikes a fair balance, and when it does, it’s good for the economy. That means the economy wins,” said Robert Hoffman, senior vice president for the Information Technology Industry Council. “This agreement, in our view, helps bring jobs and opportunities to the U.S.”

But the effort has angered the nation’s largest labor federation, which was deeply involved in the negotiations over the original bill and is a key supporter.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka issued a blistering statement on Hatch’s amendments Tuesday afternoon, calling them “unambiguous attacks on American workers,” as the federation vowed to fight them on the Senate floor. 

“Hatch’s amendments change the bill so that high tech companies could functionally bring in H-1B visa holders without first making the jobs available to American workers,” Trumka said. “Hatch’s amendments would mean that American corporations could fire American workers in order to bring in H-1B visa holders at lower wages.”

Trumka was unsparing in his criticism of the tech industry, which has lobbied aggressively to make more H-1B visas available to foreign high-skilled workers.

“The next [Sergey] Brin might be sitting in an American classroom right now,” Trumka said, referencing the Google co-founder. “But if that future innovator cannot get an entry-level job in high tech because employers prefer importing temporary workers, entrepreneurial innovations will not occur in the United States.” 

“Tech tycoons like Larry Ellison and Mark Zuckerberg have gotten rich while wages in the technology sector have stagnated.” 

The amendments from Hatch softens the requirements that employers would have to follow when hiring highly skilled workers on H-1B visas. Hatch had argued that the requirements, as written, would make it more difficult for tech companies to secure the visas they need to fill technical job positions, potentially forcing them to move those jobs abroad. 

The tech industry has issued positive statements about the Gang of Eight bill, citing its expansion of the H-1B visa cap to 110,000 from the current cap of 65,000. Tech companies use H-1B visas to hire foreign workers with specialized skills, including computer programmers, engineers and scientists. 

But privately, tech representatives voiced concern that the additional requirements in the bill would make it harder for them to obtain the H-1B visas while giving the government more power to question their hiring decisions. 

A coalition of trade associations that represents major tech companies such as Google, Facebook, Intel and IBM issued a letter on Tuesday urging members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to back Hatch’s proposed changes.

The letter, signed by 11 major tech associations, included an underlined statement that attacks the core of the AFL-CIO’s arguments against the deal.

“Just as important, the bill preserves all of the U.S. worker protections listed above: American workers will be recruited, American workers will not be displaced, and American workers will not have their salaries undercut,” the group wrote. 

“With these critical improvements, U.S. employers will be better able to keep and create jobs in this country.” 

The tech groups also argued that the U.S. schools are not currently producing enough graduates with the advanced skills needed to fill technical jobs, making visas for skilled workers even more needed.  

The AFL-CIO rejected that argument, and views the deal with Hatch as an early setback in what’s expected to be a drawn-out battle over comprehensive immigration reform. 

“The [Judiciary] committee is just the first stop in this process,” said AFL-CIO spokesman Jeff Hauser. “This is a significant change that’s happening in a rapid manner. We think that with more time for consideration by the entire Senate, we think that this aspect of the bill can be improved.”

Members of the Gang of Eight based their legislation on a series of compromises struck by the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce during weeks of talks. 

Senators hoped getting business and labor on the same page would help defuse the tensions that contributed to the failure of the last immigration reform bill, in 2007.  

But the tech industry’s push on H-1B visas is drawing fighting words from the AFL-CIO, and could draw business groups into the fray.

“We’re sorry that tech companies find it onerous to conduct actual job searches in the United States, but we believe genuinely innovative companies can pursue American workers successfully without finding the requirement unduly burdensome,” Hauser said.