Top tech groups press for changes to Gang of Eight bill ahead of markup

In particular, the industry groups say lawmakers should rethink some of the provisions in the bill that would require companies to follow new rules when they apply to hire top foreign talent via the H-1B and L visa programs. They say lawmakers should carefully consider whether those measures would prevent companies from using the visas to grow their U.S. workforce and expand their businesses.

"As with any ambitious legislation that would create a new set of requirements for U.S. employers, it is essential to closely examine the new mechanisms proposed for the H-1B and L-1 visa programs and ensure that unintended consequences are anticipated and avoided," the letter reads.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Information Technology Industry Council, Internet Association, Silicon Valley Leadership Group and TechNet, among others, signed the letter. Those trade groups represent some of Silicon Valley's top tech companies, including Facebook, Google, Intel and Microsoft.

Tech companies use the H-1B program to hire skilled workers such as computer programmers, scientists and engineers. The L visa allows American companies to transfer workers from one of its affiliated offices abroad to work in the U.S.

"Skilled immigration reform is long overdue," the letter reads. "The U.S. economy is struggling to reach its full potential in large part because the demand for highly skilled professionals exceeds the supply; a knowledge gap which will only continue to grow."

The groups cite concern with proposed recruiting requirements in the bill that they say "would force many employers to have each hiring decision subjected to government-imposed hiring standards" and open them up to potential lawsuits. They contend the rules must be flexible to allow companies to secure "the most qualified candidates to work in the U.S."

They also take issue with the language in another measure aimed at protecting American workers from being displaced by a foreign worker. Under the 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.

The business groups say this measure would conflict with their ability to "make strategic business decisions." They argue that the fast-paced nature of the industry makes it difficult for them to predict potential layoffs, or closures and mergers of certain business divisions three months ahead of time.

"We are concerned that the non-displacement requirements in S.744 would disrupt essential business efforts, such as acquisitions, investments in new lines of business, or research and development, particularly during times when other projects or divisions are being closed due to the natural evolution of business operations," the letter states.

The trade groups also call on the committee to lift a restriction in the bill that would authorize spouses of visa holders to work in the U.S. only if their home country provides reciprocal treatment to Americans living there. The State Department should be in charge deciding whether to apply that restriction, they say.

"Such a blanket restriction effectively punishes talented individuals for the actions of their home country's government," the groups argue in the letter.

These H-1B and L provisions highlighted by these business groups would be tightened even further under a set of amendments filed by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). In a separate letter, the Information Technology Industry Council, which counts IBM and Intel as members, called on the committee members to oppose these amendments, particularly ones that would tack on extra recruitment and non-displacement requirements to the visa programs. 

Tech lobbyists are privately fighting against Grassley's amendments, while encouraging members to back ones from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

The industry groups lauded the Gang of Eight for adding a measure that would increase the number of H-1B visas available to highly skilled and educated workers to 110,000 from 65,000. This has been a top policy agenda item for tech companies over the years.

In the letter, the business groups pressed the committee members to go a step further and adopt a measure from Hatch's (R-Utah) Immigration Innovation Act. The measure proposes to add a new mechanism to the system that would allow the H-1B visa cap to rise above 110,000—depending on the market demand during a given year.

But those calls are facing opposition from a prominent group that represents U.S. engineers. IEEE-USA issued a statement ahead of the markup urging Judiciary members to reject any amendments that would increase the H-1B visa cap and water down the new requirements proposed to the H-1B program.

IEEE-USA President Marc Apter says these extra rules and requirements are safeguards that protect American workers and prevent their jobs from being outsourced abroad. In effect, Apter argues the high-tech provisions in the bill should stand as is.

"Efforts to destroy the balanced compromise that went into crafting the legislation will make it more difficult to enact into law," Apter said in a statement.