A broad immigration reform package moved one step closer to passing through Congress on Tuesday, and the high-tech community took another step forward in solidifying its lobbying influence in Washington.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the comprehensive immigration proposal by a vote of 13 to 5, clearing the way for a floor vote next month. The legislation moves forward largely unscathed after five days of markup in the committee, however, some critics of the original bill managed to insert various amendments.
The last major change came late Tuesday, as Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) struck a deal to ease some of the restrictions and regulatory requirements for businesses that want to hire highly skilled foreign workers through the country’s H-1B visa program.
This from Washington Post reporter David Nakamura:
The legislation already would raise the annual limit of high-tech visas, known as H-1B, from 65,000 to as many as 180,000, but Hatch had lobbied to eliminate other restrictions on U.S. companies seeking to hire engineers and programmers from abroad.
The compromise amendment lifts the requirement that companies first offer tech jobs to Americans for all firms except those that depend on foreigners for more than 15 percent of their workforce and relaxes the formula for determining the annual number of foreign high-tech workers.
The Schumer-Hatch compromise offers slightly more flexibility to those non-H-1B-dependent firms (fewer than 15 percent foreign-born employees), too. The original bill would have prohibited all firms that apply for an H-1B worker from displacing an American worker within 90 days, but the Hatch-Schumer deal requires non-dependent firms to simply state that they do not plan to displace any employees who are U.S. citizens.
The amendments mark a major victory for the technology sector, which has applauded lawmakers for lifting the annual visa cap but lobbied aggressively against efforts to make it more difficult for companies to hire foreign workers. They argue that the additional hoops to jump through will slow their growth and innovation by hindering their ability to fill openings for specialized positions like computer programmer and engineers.
Hatch’s support of the immigration bill is considered crucial in drumming up support from Republicans. He has used that sway repeatedly in the past week to make the legislation as amenable as possible to innovative, high-tech companies in search of foreign talent.
“Simply put, these improvements strike a careful balance,” Andy Halataei, director of government relations for the Information Technology Industry Council, a trade group, wrote in a blog post about the Hatch-Schumer deal. He argued that the senators’ compromise would provide “access to critically needed talent and skills while protecting American workers.”
Not so, according to the nation’s largest labor group. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka blasted the concessions by the committee in a statement following news of the deal on Tuesday, calling the amendments “unambiguous attacks on American workers.”
“The next Sergei Brin might be sitting in an American classroom right now,” Trumka said, referring to the Russian-born co-founder of Google. “But if that future innovator cannot get an entry-level job in high tech because employers prefer importing temporary workers, entrepreneurial innovations will not occur in the United States.”
AFL-CIO and several senators have warned that the H-1B program allows companies to bypass qualified American workers in favor of low-wage labor harvested overseas. Meanwhile, the so-called “skills gap” that the visas are meant to address, some say, is at least overstated, if not totally a myth.
Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have championed the labor groups’ fight on the Hill, proposing even more restrictions to the program than what were initially written into the underlying immigration reform proposal. Most of those added restrictions were shot down by the Judiciary Committee.
“Senator Hatch, a number of us, myself included, have really leaned a long way in your direction to get your support for immigration reform,” Durbin said. “We made concessions I never thought we’d have to make…but we made those concessions to win your support. We need your support.”