A high-profile lobbying push by the technology industry has brought it closer than ever to a breakthrough on one of its top priorities in Washington: revamping visa rules to make it easier to bring foreign-born computer engineers to Silicon Valley.
The best-known names in technology, including Microsoft, Google and Intel, are poised to be winners in the latest round of bipartisan immigration talks as a group of senators prepare to unveil a bill next week.
The losers would be lesser-known outsourcing firms in India, such as Infosys and Wipro, that provide staffing help to technology companies and are among the heaviest users of the visa known as the H-1B that is at the heart of the current negotiations.
The H-1B has stirred controversy for years as tech firms have pushed to increase the number of visas available. Critics say the program has been abused by companies, leading to more American jobs moved overseas and depressed wages at home.
Armed with more lobbying firepower than in past fights, the mainstream tech firms have made headway by drawing a bright line between themselves and the mostly India-based firms that have built IT outsourcing empires and transformed the tech industry.
“We’re encouraged by our conversations in making sure those distinctions are made,” said Scott Corley, executive director of Compete America, an industry coalition representing firms including Cisco, Microsoft and Google.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced a new political group this week called Fwd.us that’s also pushing immigration and education issues related to tech hiring.
The U.S. firms say they’re nothing like the outsourcing companies that rely heavily on workers with H-1Bs in order to save money. Instead, Silicon Valley executives and lobbyists say they need more H-1Bs so they can hire the best possible talent, arguing that there’s a shortage of qualified American workers.
Yet some experts say these big firms have been using the system to pay foreign-born employees less than their American counterparts and that immigrant workers with H-1B visas end up being completely beholden to their employers. The path to a green card that confers permanent legal residence can take years, and workers in the middle of the process are often loath to switch companies — an enormous advantage for companies that want to retain workers.
Norman S. Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis, said it was unfair to single out the outsourcing firms when there are problems at big tech firms, too.
“They’re on the verge of getting off the hook,” Matloff said. “It’s just convenient for a lot of people to blame the Indians.”
Matloff has conducted research estimating that H-1B visa holders were being underpaid by 20 percent compared to similarly qualified Americans, and that contrary to what major firms are saying, foreign graduates do not show a higher level of talent than their American peers. Matloff argues that H-1B visa use has been crowding out American talent.
In Washington, heavy lobbying has focused on the Gang of Eight senators negotiating an immigration reform bill, the details of which are expected to be released next week.
Though those details are not finalized, people close to the process say the bill will probably distinguish among three categories of companies based on the percentage of employees using H-1B visas.
Those with fewer than 15 percent of workers using the visas — a group that includes most major American technology firms — will get access to new visas with few new restrictions.
Those with 15 percent or more employees using the visas are likely to get access to new visas, but may face new requirements, including possibly for higher wages.
Those with more than 50 percent of employees using the visas, a group including several major Indian companies and also some based in the United States, could face both new wage requirements and new limits on the number of the visas they can use for employees.
Lobbyists representing what’s called the “technology services industry” have resisted new limits on companies’ use of H-1B visas. “Global technology services companies provide vital services to over 480 of the Fortune 500 companies, creating jobs, fueling innovation and enhancing competitiveness,” said Jeff Lande, a lobbyist representing the industry, which has firms based both in the United States and India.
Mark B. Roberts, chief executive of TechServe Alliance, which represents U.S.-based companies that help staff the technology industry, said that H-1B visas allow work to stay in the United States. The alternative to bringing skilled foreign workers to the United States is to send the jobs to where the workers now live, he said.
The immigration debate serves as a test for the tech industry’s growing lobbying clout, and the results are beginning to show.
The industry has made increasingly heavy investments in influencing the policy debate in Washington, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Campaign contributions by the industry surged to $64.2 million in 2012, more than double the $30.7 million in 2004. Lobbying expenditures for the industry reached $133 million in 2012, up from $88.4 million in 2004.
Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.