Tech Industry Pushes to Amend Immigration Bill

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SAN FRANCISCO -- The technology industry got much of what it wanted in a bill that overhauls federal immigration law.

But in the give-and-take of political bargaining, the legislation emerged with some provisions the industry considers unappealing. Now its lobbyists are feverishly working to get rid of them.

Whether it gets its way could shape, in part, the fate of the overall package -- and with it, the fate of millions of migrants to this country.

The industry achieved its main goals in the draft Senate bill: an easing of the green card process and an expansion of the number of skilled guest worker visas. That draft, though, includes language that it considers excessive regulatory oversight of when a company can hire a temporary foreign worker and lay off an existing American worker.

Executives from Silicon Valley companies say such language would effectively keep them from using the larger numbers of temporary work permits, known as H-1B visas. They also warn of more jobs being shipped overseas. They are backing proposed amendments that would reverse those provisions.

"The amendments are very important because they allow high-tech companies to use the visas as intended rather than creating regulations that make it so difficult they cannot practically be used," the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which includes I.B.M. and Oracle, said in an e-mailed statement on Friday. It added that most technology companies already hire a preponderance of American workers.

"Companies are willing to show they have tried to hire Americans, but we want to do it in a way that works with their current hiring practices and does not place a heavy administrative burden on them," the statement continued. "The more difficult it is to get H-1B visas, the more likely that jobs will go abroad because there is no American that fits the needed skill set."

The industry has a powerful ally in Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah. His vote for the bill in the Judiciary Committee is coveted because it is expected to give the legislation crucial conservative support. He has filed several amendments that technology companies favor but that other senators, who insist on additional protections for American workers, have resisted.

Lawmakers were trying to work out compromise language on the bill before Monday, when the committee resumes its deliberations.

Silicon Valley has wasted no time in weighing in. Executives have called senators to press their case, industry lobbyists say. And those lobbyists have themselves been on hand when the committee has taken up their issues, ready to huddle with Senate aides during breaks.

As if to underscore the industry's concern in passing the bill, the secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, traveled to San Francisco on Friday to discuss revamping the immigration law with technology executives.

Critics of Silicon Valley counter that its demands could imperil the overhaul as a whole, including the fate of millions of migrants who stand to gain legal papers.

How can the tech companies threaten to kill comprehensive legislation "when it contains almost all they have said they wanted?" said Bruce Morrison, a former chairman of the House immigration committee who now lobbies for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. "All of America should lose the good the bill does so that they can fire Americans and replace them with H-1Bs? Ridiculous."

The industry is unlikely to actively sabotage the bill if it does not get its way. It could, though, stop supporting the cause, as it has enthusiastically done this year. A well-financed group led by Facebook's chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has backed television advertisements for Republicans who support the immigration overhaul. A "virtual march" is planned for Wednesday; the event is intended to mobilize tech employees to bombard Congress with automated messages in favor of the bill.

The draft bill makes it easier to sponsor foreign math and science graduates from United States universities for permanent residency. It creates a visa program for entrepreneurs. And it expands, to 110,000, from 65,000, the number of temporary workers allowed into the country every year on H-1B visas, in addition to several thousand more when there is additional demand for workers.

"Over all, tech has gotten, by any metric, the best bill they've ever seen on this issue in terms of H-1Bs," said an aide to the Judiciary Committee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because negotiations were continuing.

To assuage the concerns of American worker groups, like the one Mr. Morrison represents, lawmakers put a provision in the bill that raises minimum wages for guest workers, effectively making it tougher to use the temporary visas to drive down wages in the overall industry. Additionally, the draft makes it all but impossible for outsourcing companies, which are mostly Indian, to bring temporary workers to the United States -- leaving many more for companies based in the United States to recruit.

Technology sector lobbyists are generally pleased with the bill. But they are now objecting to language that requires employers to ensure that an "equally qualified" American is not available for a job opening before hiring a foreign temporary worker and allows the Labor Department to regulate. One lobbyist said that could put federal labor officials in the position of "second-guessing hiring decisions."

One of Mr. Hatch's amendments would tweak this language so that companies would have to follow only industry standards on hiring, effectively eliminating regulatory oversight.

Tech companies also object to language that would compel companies to show that they have not laid off an American employee 90 days before or after hiring a temporary foreign worker. The companies see this as bureaucratic interference. They support another amendment by Mr. Hatch that would require employers to state on paper that they have not replaced an American employee with a foreign guest worker.

The restrictions on hiring and firing, one industry lobbyist said, would make it difficult for companies to use the additional H-1B visas. "The numbers mean nothing if you can't use them," said the lobbyist, who declined to be named because of the delicate political negotiations. "The restrictions are so onerous and impose high-cost bureaucratic requirements that they carry too much risk. And if the better option is to hire foreign workers outside the U.S., they'll pursue it."

Michael Moritz, chairman of the venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, said the industry was lobbying for policies that would buoy the United States economy as a whole. "The message from Silicon Valley is about the future of America -- it's not about the hiring needs of a few technology companies," he said on Friday. "America's place will be assured if we can continue to be the magnet for the smartest and most energetic young people from all over the world. We need to attract them to the U.S. and keep them here. There's a danger that this sentiment gets lost amidst all the mindless politicking."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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