May 09, 2013, 12:05 PM — As the debate over comprehensive immigration reform begins to heat up in Washington, many in the tech sector will be keeping a close eye on a specific set of provisions in the proposed legislation that would increase the number of high-skilled, foreign-born workers eligible for visas and other work programs to keep them in the country legally.
U.S. businesses in many industries--though perhaps none more than IT--have long complained that the country's immigration laws are overly restrictive, with caps on so-called H-1B visas for high-skilled workers that are insufficient to meet the demand for top engineering and technology talent.
Current Policies Hurting Tech Industry
At a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee yesterday afternoon, there was broad agreement from witnesses and members of both sides of the aisle that access to skilled foreign workers is critical for vibrant industries like high tech and advanced manufacturing, as well as an acknowledgement that current policies are overdue for an update.
"Our current system for high-skilled immigration is broken," says Gwenne Hendricks, CTO and Vice President of Product Development and Global Technology at Caterpillar, a firm that employs around 10,000 engineers and has banded with several tech companies in pressing for looser H-1B visa laws.
"High-skilled immigration reform will benefit Silicon Valley type companies, but it will also benefit Midwestern manufacturers like Caterpillar," Hendrick adds. "Today our machines are powered as much by software as they are by fuel."
When the most recent pool of H-1B visas was opened earlier this year, U.S. businesses reached the cap in less than a week.
"Tens of thousands of high-skilled immigrants come to this country every year to study, work or start a business. We should welcome these people because they make our country and our economy stronger. They create American jobs" says John Rockefeller (D-W.V.), the chairman of the Commerce Committee.
"The role of immigrants in the phenomenal growth of the U.S. technology industry over the past two decades is very well documented--and stunning, is it not? Absolutely stunning. Many of our largest and most successful tech companies like Intel, eBay, Yahoo, Google were founded or co-founded by foreign-born immigrants," says Rockefeller .
"High demand for H-1B visas and long waiting times for green cards make it more difficult for talented, foreign students to work, to start a business here after they finish their degree," Rockefeller adds. "Some students give up and go home, unfortunately."
Reform Legislation Would Bump Number of H-1B Visas
Wednesday's hearing comes on the eve of a planned markup of the comprehensive immigration reform bill, which the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to consider during a business meeting Thursday morning.
The proposed immigration reform legislation the Senate is considering would increase the cap on H-1B workers from the current level of 65,000 to 110,000, and provide for an eventual expansion to 180,000 visas annually, if the demand for workers through that program was high enough.
The bill would set the cap in accordance with a metric described as the High Skilled Jobs Demand Index, while also providing for work authorization for spouses and children of H-1B visa holders.
It would also aim to boost recruiting and hiring of U.S. workers, while imposing fines and minimum wage requirements for companies that rely heavily on H-1B workers. Businesses that fill half of their workforce or more with H-1B holders would be barred from participating in the program after three years.
Witnesses at Wednesday's hearing told lawmakers that the comprehensive immigration bill would amount to an improvement in the current system for high-skilled workers, though some argued for a more liberal reform, both in the number of visas allowed and the regulations that would apply to companies that took advantage of them.
"The caps in the bill for H-1Bs are not going to be enough," says Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy.
"In some of these visa categories," Anderson says, "it's not just the numbers, it's the rules."
He expressed support for replacing the skilled-worker provisions with the language of the Immigration Innovation Act, a bill introduced in the Senate earlier this year that was hailed by many leaders in the tech industry.
Startups Would Reap H-1B Benefit
Navigating the H-1B process can be particularly challenging for startups, some of the companies that could benefit the most from skilled foreign workers, according to Ruchi Sanghvi, herself an immigrant from India who studied at Carnegie Mellon and brought her engineering expertise to Facebook, where she led development of the News Feed and Platform products before founding her own startup, Cove, which was later acquired by Dropbox.
"Talent is the life blood of most startups," Sanghvi says. "The H-1B application process is a black box to most people and most startups. Very few people on an H-1B are willing to risk joining a startup, and even fewer startups are willing to invest the time and energy to interview candidates on a visa."
The broad, bipartisan support for relaxing restrictions on high-skilled workers makes the issue one of the least controversial elements of the comprehensive reform bill the Senate is considering.
Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of the pivotal figures in the immigration debate, seemed receptive to tweaking the language of the H-1B portion of the bill and other provisions that would affect skilled workers and the tech companies so eager to employ them, describing the current situation as an artificial barrier in the labor market.
"What we have now is a very simple issue of supply and demand," Rubio says. "We have a demand for these jobs in the United States, and we have a supply of people willing to fill them. And we do not have a way for those two things to meet in an orderly fashion."
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