Issa immigration bill to boost high-skilled visas

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is preparing to introduce an immigration bill this week that proposes to boost the number of visas for highly skilled workers while eliminating the diversity visa program that Democrats are keen to preserve.

Issa's bill, which might be introduced as soon as Thursday, would increase the number of green cards for foreign graduates with advanced degrees in technical fields from American universities, according to a draft copy of the measure obtained by The Hill.

But to offset making those green cards available, the bill would cut a visa program that has been used to grant visas to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.

Republicans have sought to eliminate the diversity visa program before, arguing it’s plagued with fraud. The program allocates the visas by random selection, and they have typically been awarded to people from Africa and the Caribbean.

The Congressional Black Caucus and other groups representing African-Americans have battled against efforts to cut the diversity visa program as lawmakers consider immigration reform legislation.

This section in Issa's bill could set off a fight with Democrats and minority organizations. It's similar to the controversial STEM Jobs Act from Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) that passed the House late last year despite pushback from Democrats.

Under Issa's bill, green cards would first be made available to foreign graduates with Ph.D.s from American universities in the so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). Any remaining green cards would go to graduates with master's degrees in those technical disciplines.

Issa, who the tech industry views as a close ally, has been tapped to craft a bill that would modify the immigration rules for highly skilled and educated foreign workers. His bill will be the next piece of immigration legislation put forward in the House Judiciary Committee, which is leading the lower chamber's effort on immigration reform and has already produced bills on agricultural workers and the E-Verify program.

A spokeswoman for Issa was not immediately available for comment.

The release of Issa’s bill comes as the Senate moves to consider a sweeping immigration reform bill from the Gang of Eight. The measure was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and includes measures dealing with highly skilled workers.

The draft of Issa’s bill, which is dated May 21, includes several measures that the tech industry has lobbied for.

For instance, the bill proposes to increase the H-1B visa cap to 155,000 from the existing cap of 65,000. Tech companies have long lobbied Congress to increase the H-1B visa cap, arguing that it has been hit earlier and earlier each year.

It would also increase the number of visas set aside for foreign graduates with advanced degrees from American universities that are exempt from the visa cap. The bill would boost that number to 40,000 visas from the existing limit of 20,000.

Another significant measure in the bill is it would authorize spouses of green card holders to work in the U.S. Vivek Wadhwa, an advocate for high-skilled immigration reform, grabbed attention earlier this year when he said "women in Saudi Arabia have more rights than the spouses of high-skilled workers" at a House Judiciary Committee hearing.

Issa's bill also proposes to eliminate the per-country cap for employment-based visas.

In a win for startups, the bill would create a new green card program for entrepreneurs who have launched companies backed by investor funding. The program would set aside 10,000 green cards for entrepreneurs who have secured at least $500,000 from a venture capital firm or at least $100,000 from an angel investor.

High-skilled immigration advocates have been clamoring for more green cards for entrepreneurs looking to build their companies in the United States and have argued that such an effort would create more jobs for Americans. They note that Chile and other countries have rolled out initiatives aimed at attracting foreign entrepreneurs to come and launch their companies within their borders.

The entrepreneurs who receive these green cards would have up to three years to create jobs for five American workers and two years to either raise an additional $1 million in capital or make $1 million in revenue, according to a summary of the bill.

Similar to the Gang of Eight's immigration bill in the Senate, Issa's bill would create a STEM education fund that would go towards improving math, science and tech programs in U.S. schools so American students are better trained for technical jobs.

The bill would increase the fees that employers would pay when petitioning for green cards and H-1B visas. That additional money would be funneled to a fund to improve STEM education programs in U.S. schools.