H-1B At Center Of Immigration Reform Debate

H-1B is just one of the hot-button issues in the immigration reform act now being debated by the Senate Judiciary Committee. But it is the one that matters most to IT.

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Don't look for a short, sweet process of H-1B reform. The H-1B, once dubbed the high-tech visa, now seemingly the outsourcing visa, is a focus of special debate in the ongoing push for immigration reform in Congress.

H-1B has become a focal point because of outsourcing firms' heavy use of the visa. Those firms' clients are seen as dumping American workers in favor of cheaper workers overseas in a kind of labor arbitrage. Some high-tech firms, such as Facebook, are seen as supporting expansion of the H-1B in part because they cannot get specialized skills they need due to the large number of H-1Bs sucked up by outsourcing firms.

H-1B is just one of the hot-button issues in the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act now being debated by the Senate Judiciary Committee. But it is the one that matters most to IT.

[ Is the U.S. talent pool really as dangerously shallow as some companies want you to believe? Read IT Talent Shortage Or Purple Squirrel Hunt? ]

Up for debate is increasing the number of H-1Bs available, from 65,000, plus 20,000 more for immigrants who've just graduated with master's and Ph.D. degrees. The bill proposes expanding that to a base level of 110,000, plus 25,000 for new graduates. It could allow for as many as 180,000 visas, depending on factors such as demand for visas and unemployment levels.

Companies would be expected to pay more for these temporary work visas -- as much as $2,500 apiece -- especially if more than 50% of their U.S. employees use one. Part of the bill clearly targets outsourcers: It says companies with more than 15% of U.S. staff on an H-1B visa cannot place those employees at client sites.

Gordon Coburn, president of outsourcer Cognizant, told Bloomberg News he did not expect the immigration debate to be resolved quickly. "The process for changes to the bill we expect goes late this year into next year," he said.

Several amendments failed in discussion Tuesday. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, tried to amend the bill so that one in every 100 firms that apply for an H-1B visa would be audited to ensure it was not engaging in fraud or violations of the program. His amendment failed. Grassley also tried to require that American firms make an effort to hire an American worker before they can fill a position with an H-1B worker. That failed, too.

Another was Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-Texas) attempt to amend the bill so that there would be 325,000 H-1Bs.

That prompted a statement from the IEEE-USA, which noted "when exemptions are included, this would equal roughly 10% of the total U.S. engineering workforce." The IEEE-USA asked the Senate Judiciary committee not to increase the number of H-1Bs. IEEE argued that H-1B will encourage more jobs to be outsourced overseas. It did say in its statement that it would accept the increase to 110,000.

IEEE supports unlimited green cards for foreign nationals who've received a Ph.D. in a STEM (science, technology engineering and mathematics) field. The immigration bill will make it easier for STEM graduates to stay here.

All the amendments considered Tuesday currently can be seen on the Senate Judiciary Committee's website.

Deliberations will continue Thursday. H-1B-related amendments by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) are expected to be discussed.

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