Senators clash over H-1B visa measures for skilled workers in immigration bill

Senate Judiciary Committee members on Tuesday clashed over provisions in the Gang of Eight's immigration bill that would require companies to follow additional requirements when hiring foreign high-skilled workers. 

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the Gang of Eight and longtime H-1B critic, warned he "may not be able to support" a set of amendments offered by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) that aim to address the tech industry's concerns with new rules and requirements included in the section of the bill dealing with H-1B visas. 

Durbin said his goal is to ensure a job opening is "first offered to an American" at a reasonable wage "before we bring in talent overseas."

"Some of your amendments, I'm afraid, go in the opposite direction," Durbin said to Hatch during the committee's markup of the bill. 

Hatch warned that the tech industry could make the Senate's passage of the sweeping immigration bill difficult if the committee doesn't strike the right balance on the provisions dealing with visas for foreign high-skilled workers.

"There's a whole high-tech world that's getting up in arms if we don't do this right, and they alone could make this bill very difficult to pass," Hatch said. 

"This area is a small one, but it's an important one," he said.

The Utah Republican said it's not enough for the bill to increase the number of H-1B visas available for highly skilled workers "if rules and regulations discourage their actual use" by companies.

Hatch said he wanted to work together with the Gang of Eight members on his package of amendments dealing with the H-1B program before calling them up during the markup. 

Tech companies have been lobbying aggressively for the committee to adopt Hatch's amendments, which they say are key to modernizing the visa program so companies can make better use of it.

The amendments offered by Hatch are similar to a high-skilled immigration bill he introduced earlier this year that received backing from the tech industry.

The tech industry has been clamoring for more H-1B visas for years, saying the current cap does not meet the economy's demand for high-skilled foreign talent. It also argues that the industry cannot fill many open positions due to a lack of qualified U.S. applicants with advanced technical skills.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) slammed the H-1B program during the markup, arguing that fraud and abuse exists throughout the program. A recent document he received from the Department of Homeland Security found that the program has a "violation rate of more than 20 percent," he said.

"This assessment should serve as a wake-up call that the H-1B visa program is not working as intended," Grassley said. "The H-1B program has served a very valuable purpose, but we need to re-evaluate how this program operates."

Grassley has offered a series of amendments that would tighten the enforcement and oversight mechanisms in the H-1B provisions in the Gang of Eight bill. He said the amendments are intended to add extra protections for American workers.

"The bill goes a long way to increasing worker protection for Americans and providing more authority to the executive branch to investigate this type of fraud," he said. 

Durbin voiced support for Grassley's amendments, which are similar to legislation the two have offered in the past.

The tech industry is privately pushing back against Grassley's amendments on the Hill.

Before breaking for the weekly Senate lunches, the committee adopted a pair of largely non-controversial amendments by voice vote.

The committee members approved an amendment by Grassley that would require employers looking to hire H-1B workers to include additional information in the job postings that they publish on the Department of Labor website. 

Grassley's amendment would require them to list the title and description of the position and the location of the job, as well as the name and location information of the employer.

Under the bill, an employer seeking to hire an H-1B worker for a certain position must post the job on the Department of Labor's website for 30 calendar days.

The Judiciary panel also approved an amendment offered by Hatch that would increase the fee that employers would pay when applying for green cards for highly skilled foreign workers. Hatch's amendment would increase the fee in the bill to $1,000 from $500. The extra funds would go toward a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education fund.

Hatch said the amendment is aimed at addressing the skills gap in science, math and engineering in the U.S. The proposed change is modeled after a provision in a bill that Hatch introduced earlier this year, the Immigration Innovation Act, that received wide support from the tech industry.

"I don't think we can continue to ignore this problem," he said. "It's that simple."

The bulk of these additional funds would be allocated to state governments so they can develop their science, math and engineering programs in schools, especially programs focused on minority students and women. 

The rest of the funds would be divided among STEM programs at minority-serving colleges, and training programs for veterans and their spouses in these technical fields, among other initiatives.