Silicon Valley prepares to push House toward immigration reform

The tech industry scored two major victories on immigration this week, but its toughest legislative battle on the issue lies ahead in the House.

The passage of the Senate’s immigration bill is the closest the tech industry has come in recent years to its primary goals of raising the H-1B visa cap and securing more green cards for highly skilled foreign workers. But tech companies, like other stakeholders pushing for immigration reform, are only at the 50-yard line.

“We want to see the process move forward and this week it did, in a big way,” said Andy Halataei, director of government relations at the Information Technology Industry Council. “We have to keep pushing. How and when and exactly what's going to happen, I don't think anyone knows.”

Tech companies face a fresh set of political challenges in the Republican-controlled House. The lower chamber’s path forward on immigration legislation is unclear and time is running out for action.

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The tech industry hopes the murkiness will recede when the House Republican Conference meets on July 10, after lawmakers return from recess. While final decisions may not be made during the meeting, tech representatives view the meeting as the next key marker in the immigration debate and hope to get a better lay of the land on how the GOP leadership plans to tackle the issue.

That includes whether House Republicans plan to bring the piecemeal bills passed out of the House Judiciary Committee to the floor before Congress breaks for August recess.

“After that [meeting], the following three weeks are going to be the most important three weeks to see action on the House side and see where this is going,” said Veronica O’Connell, vice president of congressional affairs at the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA).

The industry remains undeterred despite the outstanding question marks, arguing that it has too much riding on the passage of immigration reform for political momentum to die in the House.

“I think from our perspective, failure is not really an option,” said Peter Muller, director of government relations at Intel. “We've been waiting so long to address these issues.

“We’ve seen it can be achieved in the Senate. How it can be achieved in the House is uncertain, but if it can't get done now, it's never going to get done,” Muller added.

The tech industry took a hard blow when immigration legislation unraveled in 2007 and it is working hard to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself this time. Tech companies flexed their political muscle during the debate over a pair of anti-piracy bills last year and with the Senate immigration bill, and plan to exercise their new influence during the House fight.

“We're going to use every tool that we can come up with to try to encourage lawmakers to complete this bill this year and to finally address the high-skilled immigration challenges we have been facing,” Muller said.

That strategy also includes getting face time with top House leaders, according to CEA’s O’Connell.

“We're going to keep the drum beat going,” she said. “We're going to meet with leadership on both sides of the House and keep up our messaging.”

After months of hosting fly-in trips and hitting the halls of Congress to meet with lawmakers, the tech industry was able to thwart attempts to attach labor-backed amendments into the Senate bill. The amendments would have made tech companies follow extra requirements when hiring new employees and given the Department of Labor more oversight on their hiring decisions.

Instead, the immigration bill passed the Senate on Thursday with tech-backed compromise language on H-1B workers from Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) intact.

Just a few hours later, an immigration bill by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) that would raise the H-1B visa cap and free up more green cards for highly skilled foreign workers passed the House Judiciary Committee on a mostly party-line vote.

The committee also adopted a manager’s amendment to the bill, the Skills Visa Act, that would give U.S. tech companies more flexibility when setting wages for H-1B workers.

While Democrats backed the underlying goal of Issa’s measure, they voted against it because it would eliminate the diversity visa program and another program that awards green cards to siblings of U.S. citizens.

Tech companies gave the bill their full-throated support, although they acknowledge privately that some improvements should be made to the green card section of the bill. In particular, the tech industry wants the bill to allow for unused green cards to be re-allotted within the system.

“The tech community and CEA’s goal is to ensure all the elements of the Skills Visa Act on the House side, all the victories that were won, stay intact,” O’Connell said. “We’d like to make some improvements around the edges, but right now we’re happy.”

Unlike many Washington observers, some tech industry representatives believe there is still life in the effort by a bipartisan working group of House members to draft comprehensive immigration legislation, and are waiting for a bill to materialize.

One tech lobbyist said the group has invested too much time and effort to not produce legislation, noting that pieces of their legislation could be tacked on to other bills or offered independently on the floor.

The bipartisan working group met again on Friday before breaking for the July 4 recess.

“They’ve obviously worked long and hard on something and they have a very detailed bill that has a role to play in the process,” the lobbyist said. “I think there’s still some life in that.”

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