Hatch negotiates to expand H-1B visas as part of Senate immigration bill

Video: September 11, 2001 defined the presidency of George W. Bush and the county’s new immigration policy. From the creation of the Department of Homeland Security to the building of a super-fence, the specter of 9/11 was felt along the border and in the halls of Congress. As border security escalated, President Bush’s attempts at immigration reforms collapsed.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) is negotiating behind the scenes to expand opportunities for high-skilled foreign engineers and computer programmers in the United States, a move that could upset delicate bipartisan support for a comprehensive immigration bill.

As the Senate Judiciary Committee opens the third day of amending the legislation Thursday, it has delayed consideration of a series of proposals from Hatch that would ease limits on U.S. companies in hiring foreign tech workers.

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The immigration bill already includes a major expansion of visas for engineers and programmers, upping the cap of H-1B visas from the current level of 65,000 a year to as many as 180,000. Some tech companies, including Facebook and Oracle, that rely heavily on foreigners are pushing for additional increases.

But labor unions argue that the bill could limit opportunity for Americans with identical skills.

Hatch’s amendments include a provision that would eliminate a requirement that tech companies offer jobs first to U.S. citizens, a condition that industry leaders said places an unnecessary burden on them. But the AFL-CIO has opposed Hatch’s proposals.

The outcome of the debate over the high-tech provisions could help determine the fate of the Senate’s sweeping immigration bill, which would face a more difficult road in the Republican-controlled House. Businesses have pushed GOP members to relax restrictions on the hiring of high- and low-skilled foreign workers.

Hatch has been negotiating behind the scenes with the eight senators who developed the bipartisan legislation — four Republicans and four Democrats — to reach agreement on his amendments. Though other senators offered amendments to the high-tech portion of the bill on Tuesday, Hatch’s proposals have been delayed to give the group more time to negotiate, Senate aides said.

On Thursday, the Judiciary Committee will consider amendments to the portion of the bill that governs new workplace security provisions aimed at identifying illegal immigrants. The bill would require companies to implement a federal system called E-Verify to ensure that workers are legal residents.

Republicans have said improving monitoring of the workplace is crucial to cutting down on illegal immigration, which they said must be a priority before allowing the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants to pursue citizenship.

Over the first two days of the amendment process, the committee considered 61 amendments and adopted 36 of them. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) has said he hopes to complete the process by the end of the month, potentially sending the bill to the full Senate in June.

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