Kyung Song, The Seattle Times, January 30, 2013
A bipartisan Senate plan to dramatically expand a visa program for highly skilled foreign workers resembles a proposal unveiled by Microsoft last fall, but well exceeds the company’s own goals.
Led by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, five Republicans and five Democrats rolled out the Immigration Innovation Act on Tuesday to lift the annual quota of H-1B visas for those workers from 65,000 to 115,000. That new cap would grow each year if demand outstrips supply, potentially up to 300,000 visas annually.
In addition, the bill calls for doing away with a separate cap of 20,000 visas for foreigners with graduate degrees from U.S. universities. It also would allow spouses of H-1B visa holders to hold jobs for the first time, and reserve unused green cards for permanent residency for foreigners with technology- and science-related skills.
The bill would charge employers an extra $1,000 for each visa and use the money to bolster so-called STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math — for American students.
Taken together, the provisions largely mirror a blueprint laid out earlier by Microsoft. The Redmond company and others in the technology field seek to liberalize rules to import more workers to fill vacancies for which they say they lack qualified Americans.
Microsoft had previously sought to create 20,000 extra visas for STEM-related jobs. The cap has fluctuated since the visas were created in 1990, and has never topped 195,000.
Microsoft has ratcheted up lobbying on the visa issue in recent years. Immigration now ranks as one of the top issues for Microsoft and its lobbyists, accounting for more visits to members of Congress than all but tax matters, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics.
Microsoft is one of the nation’s heaviest users of H-1B visas, and foreign workers make up about 10 percent of the company’s U.S. workforce.
Kim Berry, president of the Programmers Guild, denounced the bill as a product of “backdoor negotiations with industry lobbyists.”
Berry said the new quotas are so generous that “effectively, there is no cap.”
“These U.S. senators are siding 100 percent with multinational corporations and 100 percent against American tech workers,” he said.
The group is demanding changes to the bill, including requiring employers to first advertise the job and attempt to fill it with a qualified American before resorting to a foreign hire. Many employers currently do not need to prove a shortage of domestic applicants.
Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology and an expert on H-1B visas, said he was taken aback by the bill’s scope.
Hira estimates eliminating the cap on foreigners with advanced degrees from American universities could eventually account for 100,000 additional visas a year. Add to that working spouses of visa holders and the Hatch bill could mean an annual influx of 500,000 foreigner workers.