by Kenneth Corbin

No Deal on H-1B Visas for STEM Workers Without Immigration Bill

Mar 05, 20135 mins
GovernmentH-1B VisasIT Jobs

Leading Senate Democrat urges the Internet Association to focus its advocacy on the controversial issue of lower-skilled workers, declaring that the only path to greater numbers of foreign-born science, technology, engineering and math workers will come through a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

The effort to relax immigration laws to allow more highly skilled foreign workers to remain in the United States–long a priority of many companies in technology sector that complain of a shortage of top talent–will hinge on the capability to achieve a compromise that addresses the millions of lower-skilled undocumented workers through a comprehensive reform bill, a top Senate Democrat said on Tuesday.

In remarks at a Capitol Hill policy event hosted by the Internet Association, New York’s Chuck Schumer said that there is “broad bipartisan support” for provisions to expand the number of H-1B visas available to allow workers trained at U.S. universities in the STEM subjects–science, technology, engineering and math–to remain in the country and work.

No Deal on H-1Bs for STEM Workers Without Immigration Bill

“The greatest minds in the world want to come here and then we send them home. How silly,” Schumer says.

But Schumer stresses that the Senate will not move on any piecemeal bill that would address highly skilled workers alone without tackling the broader and far more controversial issue of creating a framework that could legitimize the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the country and incorporate policies for the so-called future flow of immigrants.

“The time is right for immigration reform,” he says, “but the problem is at the lower end.”

Schumer, McCain Team on Imigration Blueprint

Schumer has been working with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to develop a blueprint for comprehensive immigration reform legislation, which he says he hopes to introduce in short order.

“I’m optimistic that we will have a proposal finished by the end of March,” he says.

At that point, the bill would head to the Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, earlier this year affirmed his commitment to advance comprehensive immigration reform legislation to the Senate floor this session.

Schumer says he is hopeful that the committee can mark up and move a bill on to the full Senate by late spring or early summer. He also emphasizes the importance of garnering significant bipartisan support for the final product, envisioning a floor vote that would be sufficiently lopsided to force the House to pass its own immigration-reform legislation, with the two chambers then reconciling their respective versions in a conference committee.

“I think if we pass a bill in the Senate with a nice bipartisan group–not 55 Democrats and five Republicans, but rather 50 Democrats and 20 Republicans–the pressure on the House will be so large that they will have to [pass] a bill. It won’t be a bill the same as ours, but then we’ll have a conference,” Schumer says.

H-1B Exemption for STEM Workers

Earlier this year, many tech-industry groups hailed the introduction of a bill in the Senate that would explicitly address the H-1B temporary worker program and offer an exemption for foreign workers trained in STEM subjects.

But there is no path forward and out of the Senate for that type of narrow measure, Schumer said on Tuesday, urging representatives of tech companies to focus their advocacy on achieving a workable compromise on the thornier matters of the immigration debate that will need to be addressed for the passage of a broader reform bill. Schumer, the chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Center, assured the audience that the majority party in the upper chamber will accept a comprehensive bill or no bill at all.

“You will not get a bill unless there’s a full immigration bill,” he says. “The idea of just pushing your own proposal is a very bad idea.”

For the tech companies that are members of the Internet Association and other advocates of immigration proposals to expand the availability of foreign-born STEM workers, Schumer counsels that they concentrate their energies on bridging the gap between leading business lobbies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and labor groups on the more controversial issues involving lesser-skilled immigrants.

In February, the heads of the chamber and the AFL-CIO released a joint statement outlining a series of principles to expand the availability of legal immigrants while protecting jobs and wages for U.S. workers.

But that show of good faith notwithstanding, Schumer stresses that a significant friction remains between business and labor, arguing that the latter has a legitimate concern about the need to manage the future influx of foreign workers who would vie for jobs with their domestic counterparts.

“The best thing you can do to help us right now is not lobby for high-skill, high-tech immigration–that’s pretty much a consensus,” Schumer told members of the Internet Association. “But it’s to have your bosses talk to the Chamber of Commerce and the other business organizations and say on the low-skill end there’s got to be some give.”

Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.