Issa tapped for major role on immigration

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is about to become a major player on immigration reform.

Issa, the powerful chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has been tasked with crafting a bill that would modify the immigration rules for highly skilled and educated foreign workers, The Hill has learned.

The bill will be the next piece of immigration business for the House Judiciary Committee, which is leading that chamber’s work on an immigration overhaul and has already taken up bills dealing with agricultural workers and the e-verify system.

Issa’s involvement is welcome news to the tech industry, which has viewed him as an ally since he helped lead the successful fight in Congress against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). In effect, they get to work with one of their closest GOP allies on the immigration issue that they care about the most.

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"From a tech industry perspective, we have a very strong relationship with Congressman Issa. We've worked on a lot of issues with him over the years, including intellectual property issues," said Peter Muller, director of government relations at Intel. "There's a good strong relationship and we think he'd be a good person to work with on immigration."

Tech representatives also say Issa understands their perspective on the issue, citing his past work on similar legislation in the Judiciary Committee and background as an entrepreneur. Before his days in Congress, Issa founded a company that makes anti-theft devices for cars.

"Issa has been a friend of the high-tech community, especially to the Internet companies in California, so his involvement is certainly welcome as he gets the industry and he gets the issue," a tech lobbyist said. 

The House Judiciary Committee is aiming for the bill to be introduced before Congress adjourns for the Memorial Day recess at the end of the month, according to a Judiciary aide.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the Judiciary panel's chairman, told The Hill the bill will be put forward "very soon," and could come as early as next week. He declined to provide more details.

"We gotta wait until it actually is produced before I say too much," he said.

Issa, a senior member on the House Judiciary panel, was one of the first GOP members to take the side of Internet activists and the tech industry during the SOPA debate last year. During the fight against the now-defunct bill, Issa and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) produced an alternative anti-piracy bill to SOPA that received support from Google, Twitter and Yahoo.

Tech representatives are hoping that relationship with Issa will help them secure language in the House bill that will make it easier for them to hire top foreign talent. They say the current immigration system is unable to keep up with the fast-paced nature of the industry as they wait for months to hire foreign workers.

Tech companies have also argued that they cannot fill many open positions due to a lack of qualified U.S. applicants with advanced technical skills. At a Senate Judiciary hearing on immigration last month, Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said the company is "not able to fill all the jobs were are creating."

Groups that represent U.S. engineers strongly dispute those claims, and argue that the bulk of temporary worker visas go to offshoring IT services companies.

Tech representatives acknowledge that a long legislative process lies ahead, and it's far from guaranteed that they will get all the provisions they're seeking in Issa's bill.

"The industry was pleased that Mr. Issa is going to be involved with this … that's not to say he's going to agree with everything," a tech lobbyist said. "We recognize no one agrees with us 100 percent."

In particular, tech officials have made it clear that they favor language in the bipartisan Immigration Innovation Act in the Senate, and will likely push Issa to fashion his bill after it.

That bill, known as I-Squared, proposes to significantly increase the number of H-1B visas available to highly skilled workers, free up more green cards for these workers, and increase the fees that employers would have to pay to apply for H-1Bs and green cards. The extra money from those fees would go towards a grant program dedicated to supporting U.S. education programs in the so-called STEM fields, including science, technology, math and engineering.

The House’s work on immigration comes as the Senate tries to move forward with a sweeping bill from the bipartisan Gang of Eight. Tech companies have said generally positive things about the Senate bill and the increase it would make to the H-1B visa cap.

But behind the scenes, the industry is fighting hard against provisions in the Senate bill that would tack on additional rules and requirements for employers using H-1B visas.

"We think we're close in the Senate. We have some issues, but we generally think the Senate bill is a good product and we want to make sure the House bill is like that or even better," an industry source said.

Tech insiders acknowledge that the House bill presents them with the opportunity to push for provisions — particularly on the H-1B program — that they might not be able to secure in the Senate version.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is working in earnest to finish marking up the Gang of Eight's bill by the end of the month. Next week, the Judiciary panel will take up amendments from the section of the bill that covers reforming the rules for highly skilled and educated foreign workers.

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