Politics & Government

Popular H-1B visa bill getting tripped up in the Senate

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP

A White House-backed plan to make it harder for Indian outsourcing companies to displace U.S. workers is moving through the U.S. House, but it’s likely to hit a dead end in the Senate, where Republicans and Democrats have little interest in addressing H-1B visas outside of a bigger immigration deal.

For Democrats, it’s about first fixing DACA – the program that protects from deportation more than 700,000 young people brought illegally into the country as kids.

“DACA is priority 1, 2 and 3 right now,” a Senate Democratic leadership aide said of the Obama-era program that President Donald Trump terminated last year. “And there is zero chance, timing wise, legislative calendar wise, etc. of some other immigration measure coming up before DACA. It’s not even a situation worth contemplating.”

For Senate Republicans, reluctance to advance the House’s H-1B bill reflects a desire to draft a bigger bill that reduces legal immigration by curbing diversity visas and tightening chain migration, which allows immigrants to help family members into the United States.

“When they have powerful sub-issues that have broad constituencies and make a lot of sense — this will sound crazy and probably is why people think Washington is broken — but things like that should move quickly, particularly if it has broad agreement,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “But ultimately both sides want to use those popular issues in broader bills, to pass the broader bills.”

Among those applying to use the visa workers are companies that have been awarded millions of dollars in state grants under agreements to create jobs in Charlotte and elsewhere.

The House H-1B legislation, written by a pair of California lawmakers — Republican Rep. Darrell Issa and Democrat Rep. Zoe Lofgren — would make it harder for Indian outsourcing companies to bring in high-skilled foreign workers to the United States.

It has won bipartisan support, a significant feat for any immigration measure in Washington. It also was unanimously endorsed by the House Judiciary Committee, itself noteworthy considering the wide spectrum of ideologies on a panel that includes Iowa Republican Steve King, one of the staunchest proponents to tightening America’s immigration system, and Illinois Democrat Luis Gutierrez, one of biggest advocates of keeping Dreamers and their families in the United States.

The issue has drawn more attention as Disney, Southern California Edison and the University of California, San Francisco have been accused in high-profile cases of using the H-1B program to lay off American IT workers.

“The years of this problem becoming larger and larger has finally reached a point where Congress feels a mandate to act,” Issa said.

But the H-1B issue, which also has a strong and dedicated advocacy component behind it, competes for attention with other immigration issues in Washington. And Democrats are unwilling to cede their leverage to allow any legislation to move forward that could be seen as helping business groups keep their foreign workers — or get more workers — while letting young immigrants face deportation.

“Definitely not before DACA,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, member of the Judiciary Committee and one of the original co-sponsors of a Senate proposal to tighten the H-1B system. “I doubt that revisions in H-1B are likely without some comprehensive immigration deal.”

On the campaign trail, Trump cited stories of Disney using H-1B workers to replace U.S. tech workers. In April, he signed an executive order directing federal agencies to propose reforms to ensure H-1B visas are awarded to the most skilled or highest paid applicant. In November, his administration proposed ending work authorization for spouses of H-1B workers.

The Issa/Lofgren plan focuses on the most active users of the visa program, largely technology outsourcing firms from India, that bring foreign tech workers to the United States. Companies such as Microsoft, Intel and Amazon also rely on many H-1B visas.

The plan has opposition from India’s tech industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which says it “would hurt both workers and employers in a variety of economic sectors.” But Issa and Lofgren took steps to change requirements to ensure U.S. high-tech firms, such as Facebook and Qualcomm, wouldn’t be affected. They would likely benefit, as more H-1B visas would be available for U.S. companies.

“Where is the fairness of the tens of thousands of tech companies, including those start-ups, who found themselves desperately needing these workers,” Issa said. “If they had a slot, they would get a worker.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not told Senate Democrats it’s an issue he wants to work on. His staff said they had no guidance or announcements when asked about its prospects.

Staff members for Issa and Lofgren cite the bipartisan support and argue that the legislation should not be used as leverage for a comprehensive package. Issa, who is not seeking reelection, said he will work with the Senate to move the legislation along and emphasized the administration’s interest in the issue and support behind it.

“I have high confidence, having met with the president, talked on this subject with both Candidate and President Trump,” Issa said. “I wouldn’t be putting the time into this if I didn’t believe that if we can get it past the Senate that it would be favorably considered and signed by the president.”

Emily Cadei and Andrea Drusch contributed.