Microsoft is among the companies supporting a bill in Congress that would, among other things, raise the limit on H-1B visas from 65,000 to 195,000 and eliminate a cap on people who get an advanced degree in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM). The company has also talked about a “skills gap” in the U.S. that makes raising the cap H-1B visa workers important.
So when Microsoft announced layoffs last week, opponents of the “I-Squared” bill quickly weighed in. As Sen. Jeff Sessions, (R-Ala.), noted, the Microsoft cuts show “there is a surplus — not a shortage of skilled, talented and qualified Americans seeking STEM employment.”
Sessions is chairman of the Senate’s Immigration Subcommittee and his criticism of Microsoft was aimed as much at the company as at Senate supporters of the I-Squared bill. Among those supporters: Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican now seeking the GOP presidential nomination.
Here’s how the fight over the H-1B program is playing out politically:
In spelling out his innovation platform in a speech in Chicago last week, Rubio argued that the nation faces — here’s that phrase again — a skills gap. He didn’t cite the H-1B program specifically, but he didn’t have to. The skills gap claim is a mainstay assertion by Microsoft and others who want more visas.
Rubio’s Democratic counterpart in Florida, Sen. Bill Nelson, has called for an investigation into reports that Disney Parks and Resorts has been replacing IT workers by relying on IT services firms that are large users of the H-1B visa. Rubio has remained largely silent on the issue, although a spokeswoman said Rubio is “of course” concerned about the reports, but has little faith in the Obama Administration to look into the matter.
Even as Senators line up on both sides of the I-Squared bill, the Department of Labor — after first saying there was little it could do — agreed to look into reports clear across the country in California. There, Southern California Edison and other employers have been accused of using temporary visa holders to displace U.S. workers. (Sources indicate that the Justice Department’s Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices will look into whether U.S. workers were discriminated against.)
Although the I-Squared bill seems to have little traction at the moment, opponents fear that powerful backers like Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch might still could find a roundabout way to move the measure forward. Hatch serves in a top Senate leadership post.