A group of Senate Republicans and Democrats on Tuesday proposed to dramatically raise the number of high-skilled foreign workers admitted to the United States each year, an expansion that even goes beyond what Microsoft and other technology companies have been seeking.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and three others are proposing to immediately raise the current quota of 65,000 H-1B visas to 115,000. The cap would climb in steps, depending on demand, as high as 300,000 annually.
In addition, they would eliminate a separate cap on visas for foreigners with master's degrees or higher, currently set at 20,000. Spouses of H-1B visa holders would be allowed to hold jobs for the first time. Also, unused green cards for permanent residency would be freed up for foreigners with science and technology skills.
Taken together, the proposals largely mirror a blueprint unveiled last year by Microsoft -- but with much higher quotas and much lower fees than Microsoft had been seeking.
The legislation -- which likely will get rolled into the broad immigration-reform debate under way in Congress -- is sure to lay in stark relief the tension between employers seeking to fill high-tech vacancies and unemployed Americans who believe they can fill those jobs.
The bill drew swift rebuke from groups representing programmers and engineers as well as critics of the visa program. They appeared taken aback by the bill's expansive scope.
"This is a terrible bill for American technology workers and students. It greatly expands a deeply flawed guest-worker program that takes away job opportunities from American workers and undercuts their wages," said Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology and an expert on H-1B visas.
Kim Berry, president of the Programmers Guild, denounced the bill in a statement as a product of "backdoor negotiations with industry lobbyists."
"These U.S. senators are siding 100 percent with multinational corporations and 100 percent against American tech workers," he said.
Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel and executive vice president who has been leading the H-1B issue, called the bill a "major step forward" in addressing the shortage of well-educated Americans as well as skilled foreign workers.
"They have reached across party lines to craft a meaningful proposal that will positively impact opportunities for America's students and workers and our economy," Smith said in a statement.
The bill's other main sponsors are Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Democrats Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Chris Coons of Delaware.
Microsoft had previously suggested creating an extra 20,000 H-1B visas a year for "STEM" jobs -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The cap has fluctuated since the visas were created in 1990, and has never exceeded 195,000.
Microsoft also has proposed a fee of $10,000 for each extra visa to fund science, technology and math education to train future American workers. Hatch's bill would charge employers an extra $1,000 instead on all visa applications.
Microsoft is one of the nation's heaviest users of the H-1B visas, and foreign workers make up about 10 percent of the company's U.S. workforce.
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