WASHINGTON -- 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."
Randal Bryant, dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, said the H-1B program helps his foreign students get jobs in the private sector and hasn't seemed to diminish job opportunities for his American students.
"The companies that are talking to us are just as happy to hire Americans as anybody," Mr. Bryant said. "This idea that bringing in more immigrants is stealing jobs from Americans is entirely unfounded" in the field of computer science, he said. "There's a shortage of workers with the right qualifications."
But, he said, the system is "clunky" and imperfect. For one, it limits foreigners' opportunities to jobs in larger companies that have the wherewithal to endure the time-consuming and bureaucratic visa application process.
"The whole process is not a pleasant experience," he said.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said he supports the effort to expand the availability of foreign students to obtain work visas.
"These are among the world's most productive people [who] will help expand our economic pie for everybody, and we should welcome them," Mr. Toomey said.
"These are people who come here with great intellectual capital, great human capital," he said. "People who come here and get an education and further improve their own human capital, and then they get kicked out of the country so they can go somewhere else and compete against us in another country makes no sense at all."
Increased availability of H-1B visas would help local companies who can't find enough workers with the specialized knowledge and skills employers need, said Valerie May, owner of May Law Group, an immigration law office headquartered in Pittsburgh, where many companies hire foreign workers for specialized jobs in engineering, medicine and computer science.
"If you have a very specialized product, you need the best and the brightest, and there are only so many of them in any given group of people," Ms. May said. "You have a very finite pool in the U.S. -- the top graduates from an engineering school or the top graduates from Carnegie Mellon in computer science. If you expand that pool to include individuals from top schools in India and Europe and China, you're increasing the pool of the most highly qualified individuals."
Nationwide, an average of 312,000 applications are received each year for 65,000 spots, according to a study last year by the Brookings Institute. Requests focus on large metropolitan centers such as Pittsburgh, which has a high demand for visas for engineers and computer scientists.
The caps apply only to the private sector, not to universities and nonprofits, which sponsor about 30,000 H-1B visa holders, many of them educators and health care providers. With the exception of fashion models, all H-1B visa holders must have at least a bachelor's degree and be working in a job requiring theoretical and practical application of highly specialized knowledge.
Sponsoring employers must receive approval from the departments of Labor, State and Homeland Security.
They also must pay between $1,575 and $4,325 in filing fees and taxes, including an assessment that's used to fund job training programs aimed at filling the gap between the skills available in the workforce and those needed by employers.
Tuesday's proposal includes an additional fee of $1,250 to $2,500, depending on company size, to fund programs to train domestic workers in science, technology, engineering and math -- known together by the acronym STEM.
Technology company executives say they are happy to pay fees that will go toward educating the American workforce. Microsoft had proposed paying as much as $10,000 in additional fees for each visa.
Visa taxes and fees already have amounted to about a billion dollars over the last decade, according to the Brookings Institution.
"Having a lot of high-skilled immigrants is a temporary fix. The logic behind the fees is that we need to train our own American workforce for the jobs of today and tomorrow so that we don't have to rely so much on H-1B visa holders," said Neil G. Ruiz, senior policy analyst for the Brookings Institute and lead author of the nonprofit think tank's July report.
His report showed that the greatest demand for H-1B visas are from companies in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
H-1B visas have been offered since 1990. Since then, the cap has fluctuated between 65,000 and 195,000.
Staff Writer Timothy McNulty contributed.