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Bipartisan Senate bill eyes immigration reform for tech workers

A bipartisan team of senators lent a helping hand to the tech sector on Tuesday by introducing legislation to reform the immigration system for high-skilled workers.

The bill, which was first introduced in 2013 but failed to move in Congress, would address a major demand of Silicon Valley firms, who say that current law prevents them from bringing into the U.S. enough skilled programmers to keep up with the demand.

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The Immigration Innovation Act is “a commonsense approach to ensuring that those who have come here to be educated in high-tech fields have the ability to stay here with their families and contribute to the economy and our society,” Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin HatchTax reform: Starting place for jobs, growth Overnight Finance: Senate Dems dig in as shutdown looms | Trump taps fast-food exec for Labor chief | Portland's new CEO tax Mnuchin, Price meet with GOP senators MORE (R-Utah) — who is pushing legislation to promote the U.S. tech sector — said in a statement.

While comprehensive immigration reform appears to be a non-starter in Congress, many tech lobbyists have expressed hope that a more targeted bill to help out their sector could move, even in a new Congress controlled by Republicans.

The issue was listed near the top of many industry groups' to-do lists heading into the year, and the bipartisan support for the new bill may hint at the chances of progress.

In addition to Hatch, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Marco RubioMarco RubioSenate clears water bill with Flint aid, drought relief What Trump's Cabinet picks reveal House passes water bill with Flint aid, drought relief MORE (R-Fla.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) are co-sponsors of the new bill. Flake and Rubio were both members of the Gang of Eight senators who wrote an immigration bill in 2013, which ultimately failed to move in the House.

Current law caps the number of high-skilled workers allowed into the U.S. under the H-1B visa program at 65,000 per year.

Tech companies have long lobbied for Congress to raise that number, and the new bill would increase it to 115,000. It would also allow the annual cap to increase up to 195,000, depending on demand, and allow spouses of people with those visas to get a job in the U.S.

Additionally, the bill would allow the government to reissue green card numbers that have been approved in past years but were never used, and allow more researchers and people with advanced degrees to enter the country.

“An immigration system for the 21st century will be judged by whether it provides the conditions for both security and economic growth,” Rubio said in a statement. “The reforms in this legislation lead the way to such a system, which I believe we can ultimately achieve after meeting the immediate challenges of securing our borders and improving internal enforcement.”

Multiple industry groups applauded the bill after it was introduced on Tuesday.

The head of TechNet, a network of tech industry CEOs, said it addresses “critical components to maintaining economic competitiveness and future job creation,” while the Consumer Electronics Association called it a “a long overdue step” to addressing the industry’s workforce shortage.

Congressional critics of more flexibility for high-skilled workers, including Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), have accused tech companies of trying to suppress wages and hire foreigners instead of turning to talented American workers.

In a memo distributed around Capitol Hill this week, Sessions called the shortage of qualified candidates for tech jobs a “hoax.” He cited instances of tech companies laying off U.S. workers while calling for more visas and pointed to Census Bureau data that seemed to show that millions of people with science and engineering backgrounds can’t get a job.

This story was updated at 5:37 p.m.