WASHINGTON — The technology sector, a little-publicized but key player in the coalition that's pushing for an overhaul of immigration laws, has given mixed reviews to the proposal that Senate Democrats unveiled last week.
Public dialogue on immigration has focused largely on a path to legalization for the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, but technology companies have lobbied for years to streamline and ease the process of hiring skilled legal immigrant workers. They hope to capitalize on the momentum that surrounds immigration.
Peter Muller is the director of government relations for Intel, one of the largest sponsors of H-1B temporary visas for skilled workers. The company was approved for 723 new H-1B visas in 2009. Muller said Intel had been hindered in hiring and keeping the most qualified people by the annual caps on H-1B visas and the sometimes decade-long delay in processing green card applications.
"To not be able to hire the people who really drive innovation in our company is a frustration," he said.
The number of H-1B visas issued each year is capped at 65,000, with another 20,000 reserved for foreign-born students who graduate from U.S. schools with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, programs from which companies such as Intel recruit many of their workers. In past years, the allotment often was gone within days after the application period opened in April. Last year, it took until December to hit the cap.
Even with a slower economy reducing demand for workers, however, tech companies say they want the system overhauled.
"Companies are still hiring, so fixing the problems and fixing the system is important," said Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, the co-executive director of Compete America, a coalition of companies that are lobbying for more high-skilled immigration. "It's an issue today for some companies, and it's going to continue to be an issue that needs to be addressed."
For H-1B workers who want to stay in the country permanently, the wait for a green card can take years. Ashish Sharma, an Indian citizen who's working for a technology company in California, has waited for a green card for seven years. At one point, Sharma said, he considered leaving the United States because of the uncertainty of his status.
"The long wait does bother people," he said. "I did look at what Canada was offering, where they give you a green card within three months."
Sharma ultimately decided to stay for the sake of his two children, who were raised in the U.S., but some employers as well as workers have chosen to go abroad. Microsoft, a top sponsor of H-1B visas with 1,318 petitions approved in 2009, opened a development center in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2007, in part to take advantage of Canada's more lenient immigration laws.
Compete America praised some aspects of the Democratic immigration framework that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey put forward last week.
The coalition favors a provision that would offer green cards to foreign students who graduate from U.S. universities with advanced degrees in specialized fields, but it's pushing back against provisions that would limit the hiring of H-1B workers and increase government scrutiny of companies that sponsor the temporary visas.
The language in the Democrats' framework that deals with temporary visas came largely from a bill intended to curb abuses in the H-1B system that Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced last year.
Durbin said in an e-mailed statement that the H-1B program was too easily abused by employers who used it to, in effect, outsource jobs that American workers could fill.
"Congress created the H-1B visa program so an employer could hire a foreign guest worker when a qualified American worker could not be found," he said. "However, the H-1B visa program is plagued with fraud and abuse and is now a vehicle for outsourcing that deprives qualified American workers of their jobs."
Tech industry representatives disagreed.
"We are all for strong enforcement," Herrera-Flanigan said. "But the way the provisions are written, it's much more far-reaching than that, and it could have an adverse effect on companies that are not bad actors."
The H-1B provisions came in for criticism from people who represent immigrant workers as well as from employers. Aman Kapoor, the president of Immigration Voice, a network of skilled immigrant workers, called the proposal draconian and said the restrictions could render the H-1B process essentially useless.
Schumer's office didn't respond to requests for comment.
Advocates in the broader immigration-overhaul coalition said support from the technology industry would be key to winning the wide political backing that was necessary to give a comprehensive bill a shot at passing.
"I think it is important, and in part that is because tech is one of the key business sectors that will be necessary to bring the Republican votes we will need, in the Senate, especially," said Jeanne Butterfield, a senior adviser for the National Immigration Forum, a group that advocates policies that are more welcoming toward immigrants.
Technology companies make up a substantial portion of the voices that are lobbying for federal immigration revisions. Of the 288 federal lobbyist filings that had reported lobbying on immigration issues in the first quarter of the year as of Monday, an analysis shows that about 17 percent came from companies and organizations that represent the technology and engineering sectors. Others represented fields such as medicine and education, which also are interested in skilled immigrants.
The people who are lobbying on behalf of the tech sector said that although their issues with the immigration system were specific, they had no plans to peel off from the broader overhaul coalition to pursue a more tailored bill.
Muller said the word from Capitol Hill had been that immigration was too contentious an issue to tackle piecemeal.
PROVISIONS THAT WOULD AFFECT TECH SECTOR:
Green cards (legal permanent resident visas):
- Foreign students who graduate from U.S. schools with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics automatically would be eligible for green cards if U.S. employers offer them jobs.
H-1B visas (temporary work visas for foreign workers in specialized jobs):
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