Despite wide support for high-skilled immigration reform, H-1B visas called into question

"There are right ways and wrong ways to address this process and we at IEEE-USA very much believe that the emphasis needs to be on green cards," Morrison said.

"No one said has ever said this is a nation of guest workers," he added. "The fact is immigrants are individuals who come and get green cards and have permanent rights in the United States and that is the key challenge that this subcommittee has."

Morrison acknowledged that the current green card system "is hopelessly backlogged," but encouraged lawmakers to look at freeing up more green cards to address the current backlog and future demand for them.

But House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), a former immigration attorney, said the H-1B program is important for employers so they can hire talented foreign workers right away while waiting for their green card petitions to get approved—which often takes years.

"The two [programs] really need to work hand in hand," Goodlatte said. "We also do need to have the two programs mesh better than they do now."

Morrison argued that "it is not necessary to have that delay in the green card system," which would reduce the need for temporary worker visas.

"The use of other mechainsms to speed the admission, including possible fees, could be a way that we don't play this tryout game" with foreign workers, he said.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the immigration subcommittee and also a former immigration attorney, echoed Goodlatte's point. The California Democrat said making more green cards available to highly skilled and educated workers is a critical solution to reforming the current immigration rules, but "that doesn't mean there isn't a place for reform for the H-1B program."

Lofgren is part of a bipartisan group of House lawmakers that has been privately working on comprehensive immigration legislation. When asked about the status of the group's work after the hearing, Lofgren answered: "I'm not in a position to confirm or deny the discussions underway, but let me just say this, I'm optimistic."

Dean Garfield, the CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council, voiced support for increasing the number of H-1B visas available to skilled workers. He argued that the tech industry needs those visas to keep projects for new services and projects based in the United States rather than sending them abroad.

"Not every job is going to be a permanent job. There are instances where design team leaders or engineers are hired in the U.S. with the understanding that as the product or service being developed moves through the global supply chain, that position will move with the product or service," Garfield said. "The fundamental question we have to ask ourselves is whether we want the U.S. to be the platform for innovation for the rest of the world? And my strong view is that we, in fact, do."

Garfield said a 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office found that the H-1B visa program does not undermine the prevailing wage for American workers. Still, he said the program could benefit from some improvment and said ITI is willing to work with lawmakers to this end.

"That's not to suggest the H-1B program is perfect and cannot be improved, it's just to suggest that it's not worth throwing out and we can improve it," he said. 

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.

ITI, which represents large tech giants like IBM and Microsoft, is supportive of a Senate bill that would significantly increase the number of H-1B visas for skilled workers and aims to free up more green cards for them. It is also supportive of another Senate bill that proposes to create a new start-up visa category.  In his testimony, Deepak Kamra, a general partner at venture capital firm Canaan Partners, said lawmakers should back the creation of a startup visa for foreign entrepreneurs.

Later, Morrison argued that a green card does not tie a skilled foreign worker to a particular employer or job position, unlike an H-1B visa. But Ben Johnson, the executive director of the American Immigration Council, said that portability issue only becomes a problem when an employer applies for a green card for the foreign worker with an H-1B visa.

For this reason, he said the problem likely needs to be addressed on the green card side of the equation.

When Gowdy asked whether implementing a point system would help with the high-skilled immigration problem, the witnesses largely voiced opposition to such a proposal.

"I think the point system will bring more bureaucracy to an already complicated and broken process, so I wouldn't' support that," Garfield said. 

-- This story was updated at 5:42 p.m. to clarify Morrison's testimony.