As Democrats take over leadership of both houses of the U.S. Congress from Republicans, technology industry lobbyists will try again to push for worker visa reform.
Legislation to allow more highly skilled foreign workers to come to the United States and stay longer failed in the last session of Congress, but it will be reintroduced in the next session, said Andrea Hoffman, vice president of TechNet, a lobbying group for technology companies.
TechNet is pushing for three reforms, Hoffman said: Increasing the number of H1B visas granted annually to foreign workers employed temporarily at U.S. companies; granting employment-based visas to workers whose H1B visas are about to expire but whose application for lawful permanent residency (commonly known as a "green card") is backlogged; and allowing foreign workers who earn advanced degrees at U.S. colleges and universities to stay and work in the United States once they graduate.
Legislation on those reforms became part of a controversial immigration reform bill that tied Congress up in debates about illegal immigrants, deportation and border security and ultimately failed.
With Democrats winning control of Congress in the November elections, TechNet is going to push its reform agenda anew, Hoffman said.
"We are very optimistic," she said. "The change in leadership will be a very good opportunity for the tech industry."
One way to keep highly skilled and well-paying jobs in the United States is to reform the student visa policy, said Gary Fazzino, vice president of governmental affairs for Hewlett-Packard (HP) and a member of TechNet.
"We’re interested in making it easier for foreign-born students who come here and receive technical degrees to remain in the U.S. more easily than has been the case in the last few years," Fazzino said.
HP hosted a public forum Monday on legislative issues in the new Congress featuring U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, a Silicon Valley Democrat.
"I’ll be very sensitive to the needs of the valley," Lantos told IDG News Service after the event, when asked about the proposed immigration reforms. He declined to discuss specifics.
Under current law, 65,000 H1B visas are granted each year to foreign workers, each of whom needs to be sponsored by a U.S. company that couldn’t find an American worker who has the needed skills. But that quota for federal fiscal 2007 was filled before the year even began, according to Hoffman. TechNet wants the ceiling raised to 115,000.
Labor interests oppose raising the ceiling. Among the critics is the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, in Seattle, which argues that there are more high-tech workers available in the United States than jobs to fill.
TechNet also advocates a new "employment-based visa" category for those who have an H1B that is about to expire but are still on a waiting list for a green card. There is a backlog of more than 500,000 green card applications in the United States, according to ImmigrationVoice.org.
"The system is archaic," Hoffman said. "It is not consistent or structured in such a way that it fits business practices and models ... and we need change."
-Robert Mullins, IDG News Service (San Francisco Bureau)
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