The tech community will have its first chance Tuesday to weigh in, carefully, on major immigration legislation being debated in the Senate. The influential lobbying force that has for years scrambled for access to highly skilled foreign workers must now carry out a rough balancing act: making sure lawmakers know that the bill, as written, does not work for it, but that it doesn’t want to kill the process, either.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is the key to the tech community’s success in this debate. He has readied a handful of amendments to make the H-1B visa program easier for companies to navigate. The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to debate the title of the bill that addresses the high-skilled temporary visa program on Tuesday, but it is not clear that they will get to Hatch’s amendments. A safer bet is that amendments from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, which the tech community dislikes, will be brought up first.
Grassley has long been a critic of the H-1B program, worrying that companies exploit foreign workers and displace American workers in the process. He has several amendments on tap that would make enforcement of the program tougher on employers, for example, by requiring hearings and investigations of all employers in which an H-1B application has misrepresentations.
The tech community is hoping Grassley’s harshest amendments will be voted down, but they are spending far more time rallying behind changes to the immigration bill that would make the H-1B program worth using.
“The changes we’re making are more mechanical than issue-oriented. The fundamentals of the bill are fine; the problem is the mechanism,” said Robert Hoffman, senior vice president of government relations at the Information Technology Industry Council. “The bill as it currently exists works against those companies ... that use H-1Bs to complement their workforce.”
ITIC and dozens of other business and technology groups sent a letter Monday to the Senate Judiciary Committee outlining the changes they are hoping to see in the H-1B program. Hatch has drafted amendments that address most of their concerns. For example, the tech industry worries that the bill’s provisions against displacing American workers “would disrupt essential business efforts” by barring them from closing unrelated projects or divisions if an H-1B worker has been hired recently. The bill’s intention is to keep employers from firing an American in favor of an H-1B worker, but the language could confuse employers’ legitimate efforts to move projects around in the 90-day window after they hire an H-1B visa holder. Hatch has an amendment that echoes the tech community’s concerns, and he proposes changing the bill to explicitly state that an employer is prohibited from firing a U.S. worker to hire an H-1B worker.
Hatch also wants to increase the number of H-1B visas allotted per year to 115,000 and automatically allow the cap to go up by 20,000 per year if the demand exceeds the current cap. That proposal is controversial and could get voted down if Democrats feel pressure from organized labor. The IEEE-USA, the policy unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, has calculated that some of Hatch’s amendments, if accepted, could push the cap to 300,000 a year, displacing American engineers in the process. “When exemptions are included, this would equal roughly 10 percent of the total U.S. engineering workforce,” the association said in a statement Monday.
This article appears in the May 14, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.