Coming on the heels of a comprehensive blueprint to overhaul immigration laws, another bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill Tuesday that would greatly expand the availability of visas for highly skilled workers so more foreigners can find jobs with U.S. companies that need specialized skills that are hard to find in the American workforce.
Spearheaded by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., the bill also would increase visa fees used for programs that prepare American workers for high-skill jobs.
The proposal calls for a larger expansion than technology companies had asked for, and the fee is within the range of what they were willing to pay.
The bill's introduction came a day after eight senators unveiled a framework that would give 11 million illegal immigrants the right to stay in the United States and work while they apply for full legal status. The blueprint also calls for tightening borders and penalizing employers who hire illegal immigrants.
Tuesday's proposal is a separate measure that sponsors hope could be incorporated into larger overhaul efforts.
"It's a market-driven path forward to fulfilling a need in our immigration system and growing the economy. It's good for workers, good for businesses trying to grow, and good for our economy," Mr. Hatch said.
Currently, H-1B visas are capped at 65,000 per year. That cap initially would change to 115,000 under the Hatch-Klobuchar bill, and that limit could rise as high as 300,000 if demand warrants.
The bill also would remove a separate cap -- currently at 20,000 -- on visas for foreigners with advanced degrees and would require unused green cards to be freed up for immigrants skilled in science and technology.
Blowback is expected from critics who have said H-1B visas promote outsourcing, take good jobs from Americans and provide experience for foreigners who return to their own countries to work for employers that compete with U.S. firms.
Among proposed measures from Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to H-1B requirements are investigating employers who abuse the program, restricting the number of visas companies can sponsor and prohibiting employment ads specifying "H-1B only."
Groups including the Programmers Guild, a nonprofit representing technical and professional workers, oppose H-1B visas, saying they take good jobs from American workers.
Technology companies say the H-1B visa is essential to hiring workers with skill sets hard to find in the U.S. labor pool and that they're pleased to see an effort to expand their availability.
"There are many high-skilled, high-paying jobs being created by American businesses across the country that are being left unfilled because of this gap," said Brad Smith, general counsel and executive vice president of Microsoft, which applied for 4,109 H-1B visas in 2010-11, the most of any company that year, according to a study by the Brookings Institute.
Critics of the H-1B visa program say companies exaggerate the size of the gap and that they aren't required to justify the need to hire from outside the country.
"What's breathtaking about this bill is that it doesn't propose to close any of the loopholes," said Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology, who has testified before Congress about H-1B visas. "There's no labor market test. An employer does not have to try to hire an American worker first and doesn't have to demonstrate that there's a shortage of Americans who can do the job."
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