By Jennifer Martinez - 05/09/13 09:00 AM EDT
The tech industry is on guard against amendments to the Senate immigration bill that could chip away at provisions that would help their businesses employ more highly skilled foreign workers.
In particular, tech companies are worried that a set of amendments offered by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) would tack on additional rules and requirements to the H-1B temporary worker program that they say would make it difficult for their businesses to make use of the visas.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is slated to mark up the immigration bill on Thursday in the opening act of what will likely be a long, contentious fight over amendments.
While tech companies and trade associations have yet to publicly throw their support behind the Senate bill, many have released generally positive statements about it.
Tech companies have lobbied Congress for years to increase the number of H-1B visas available, which they use to employ engineers, programmers, scientists and other professionals who aren’t U.S. citizens.
The Senate bill would expand the annual cap of H-1B visas to 110,000 from the existing cap of 65,000, and raise the number of visas for foreign graduates with advanced degrees from U.S. universities that are exempt from the annual cap.
“The bill itself is a very positive bill and it’s going in the right direction. There’s a few things we’re trying to improve,” said Peter Muller, director of government relations at Intel. “We’re concerned about any amendments that would take a step back on the progress the bill would make.”
“At a time when there’s an effort to make this program more usable, would increase the number of H-1B visas, it would be counterproductive to put up barriers that would make it hard and impossible for companies to use that program,” Muller added.
Tech insiders have expressed concern about some changes that the bill, as written, would already make to the H-1B program, including some additional enforcement mechanisms. But they are worried that Grassley’s amendments would make many of those H-1B provisions they had already had concerns with worse, making it difficult for law-abiding American companies to hire the foreign talent they need.
“[Sen.] Grassley’s amendments would make no effort to distinguish between those good companies and those companies that are doing wrong” and using the program strictly to hire more immigrant workers, said Scott Corley, executive director of Compete America, a coalition of tech companies and associations that advocates for high-skilled immigration reform.
Grassley, along with fellow Judiciary Committee member Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), has long been critical of the H-1B visa program, arguing that it’s rife with fraud and has been abused by companies looking to bypass American workers.
Grassley introduced a bill with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) earlier this year that would include additional enforcement and oversight mechanisms to the H-1B program. The prominent group IEEE-USA, which represents U.S. engineers, backs the bill.
In a statement, Grassley stood by his amendments, calling them “commonsense” proposals.
“My H-1B amendments are along the lines of proposals I have long sought with Senator Durbin and now Senator Brown,” Grassley said. “The amendments do things such as requiring employers to make a good faith effort to hire qualified Americans first, and to root out fraud and abuse of the H-1B and L Visa programs. These are common sense amendments that attempt to level the playing field.”
One of Grassley’s amendments proposes to strike a provision that would allow tech companies to count an H-1B worker toward their U.S. workforce total if they have applied for a green card for the worker. The total U.S. workforce number is significant for tech companies because it determines whether they are considered an H-1B dependent company, and therefore subject to significantly more regulations when applying for temporary worker visas.
A company is considered H-1B dependent if 15 percent of its workers are on an H-1B or L visa.
A tech lobbyist said Grassley’s amendment could have a huge impact on start-up companies, which would only need to employ a handful of H-1B workers to be considered dependent. Companies that employ a large number of H-1B workers who are waiting for their green cards could be affected as well, the lobbyist said.
Another Grassley amendment that worries tech representatives would modify the non-displacement requirements for employers that hire H-1B workers. Under the current bill, a company must attest that a new H-1B hire did not or will not replace a U.S. worker doing the same type of job 90 days before and after their visa application is filed.
Tech officials already find that requirement troubling. They say the fast-paced nature of their industry often forces them to abandon a particular gadget or product at a moment’s notice, making it difficult to predict layoffs that would affect their U.S. workforce or a certain business division.
Grassley’s amendment would double the non-displacement requirement to 180 days from 90 days, which tech insiders say will be extremely difficult for companies to comply with.
But tech companies also stand to benefit from some of the proposed amendments, particularly a set from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). His amendments would tack on provisions to the bill that are similar to a high-skilled immigration bill he offered with a bipartisan group of senators earlier this year, the Immigration Innovation Act. That bill, known as I-Squared, was lauded by the tech industry.
“The amendments released by Sen. Hatch would go a long way to helping us modernize our H-1B system to make the aims of the bill workable for U.S. companies,” said Andrew Halataei, director for government relations at the Information Technology Industry Council, which counts Google and Intel as members.
“With all the amendments coming up, we’re talking to members to make sure they fully understand how the H-1B program works and how it helps our economy here at home.”