WASHINGTON — A bipartisan Senate plan to dramatically expand a visa program for highly skilled foreign workers resembles a proposal unveiled by Microsoft last fall, but well exceeds the company’s own goals.
Led by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, five Republicans and five Democrats rolled out the Immigration Innovation Act on Tuesday to lift the annual quota of H-1B visas for those workers from 65,000 to 115,000. That new cap would grow each year if demand outstrips supply, potentially up to 300,000 visas annually.
In addition, the bill calls for doing away with a separate cap of 20,000 visas for foreigners with graduate degrees from U.S. universities. It also would allow spouses of H-1B visa holders to hold jobs for the first time, and reserve unused green cards for permanent residency for foreigners with technology- and science-related skills.
The bill would charge employers an extra $1,000 for each visa and use the money to bolster so-called STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math — for American students.
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Taken together, the provisions largely mirror a blueprint laid out earlier by Microsoft. The Redmond company and others in the technology field seek to liberalize rules to import more workers to fill vacancies for which they say they lack qualified Americans.
Microsoft had previously sought to create 20,000 extra visas for STEM-related jobs. The cap has fluctuated since the visas were created in 1990, and has never topped 195,000.
Microsoft has ratcheted up lobbying on the visa issue in recent years. Immigration now ranks as one of the top issues for Microsoft and its lobbyists, accounting for more visits to members of Congress than all but tax matters, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics.
Microsoft is one of the nation’s heaviest users of H-1B visas, and foreign workers make up about 10 percent of the company’s U.S. workforce.
The pending legislation — which likely will get rolled into the broad immigration debate under way in Congress — is sure to exacerbate the tension between high-tech companies and unemployed Americans who fear they’re being displaced by younger, lower-paid foreigners.
Groups representing engineers and programmers, as well as individual workers, reacted with dismay and disbelief to the bill.
Kim Berry, president of the Programmers Guild, denounced the bill as a product of “backdoor negotiations with industry lobbyists.”
Berry said the new quotas are so generous that “effectively, there is no cap.”
“These U.S. senators are siding 100 percent with multinational corporations and 100 percent against American tech workers,” he said.
The group is demanding changes to the bill, including requiring employers to first advertise the job and attempt to fill it with a qualified American before resorting to a foreign hire. Many employers currently do not need to prove a shortage of domestic applicants.
Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology and an expert on H-1B visas, said he was taken aback by the bill’s scope.
Hira estimates eliminating the cap on foreigners with advanced degrees from American universities could eventually account for 100,000 additional visas a year. Add to that working spouses of visa holders and the Hatch bill could mean an annual influx of 500,000 foreigner workers.
Christina Pearson, a Microsoft spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., declined to say whether the company considers the number of H1-B visas proposed in the bill reasonable.
But in a statement, Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel and executive vice president, called the bill a “major step forward” in addressing the shortage of qualified Americans as well as the lack of visas available for 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.
Microsoft has said it pays foreigners the same $100,000-plus salaries as its American employees, and that it would not be hiring from abroad if it could hire at home.
American schools and universities, Microsoft says, simply are not graduating enough people in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
Foreigners earn nearly half of graduate degrees in computer science or engineering from U.S. institutions. And 95 percent of American high schools do not offer advanced-placement computer-science courses.
Microsoft had previously proposed a fee of $10,000 for each extra visa to fund STEM education. Hatch’s bill would charge employers an extra $1,000 instead on all visas.
The bill’s main sponsors also include Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Chris Coons of Delaware. Hatch, Klobuchar and Coons serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over immigration issues.
The Senate proposal includes an escalator and a decelerator to peg the annual H-1B visa quotas to market demands.
If employers claim the initial 115,000 visas within 45 days of the April 1 application date, an additional 20,000 visas would be freed up immediately. Then the next year, the base cap would be set at 135,000, with the same step-up increase based on demand.
In 2007 and 2008, before the financial meltdown, employers snapped up all the visas in the first seven days they became available.
But in 2011, it took nearly seven months to reach the quota.
The bill also would add several protections for foreign workers, including giving them 60 days to find work if they lose the job with the original sponsoring company. Without a green card, a visa holder’s stay is limited to a total six years.
Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or email@example.com