Corporate scramble over shortage of ‘high tech’ visas could spark reform debate

Opponents say Americans losing out on high-skilled jobs

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It took less than a week for businesses to apply for all 85,000 specialty visas under the government’s H-1B program, which is generally used to bring high-tech workers into the country, and the quick pace could be the spark that reignites the immigration debate in Congress this year.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said this year’s application period, which began April 1, had already crossed the limit by Monday, or within the first five business days — a signal, analysts said, both of an economy on the rebound, and of continued strong demand for high-skilled foreign workers.

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Business groups pleaded with Congress to let the numbers revive the stalled immigration debate, saying the economy is being held back by companies’ inability to go get the workers they want.

“We’ve hit too many outdated H-1B limits and seen green card backlogs grow far too much. The time is now for Washington to enact meaningful immigration reform,” said Greg Brown, chairman & CEO of Motorola Solutions and chairman of the Business Roundtable’s immigration committee. “The interest in H-1B visas is another indicator of system-wide deficiencies that are stunting growth but can be fixed by action in Washington.”

But the issue isn’t as cut-and-dry for critics, who say the H-1B program lets employers undercut American workers and use foreigners — in some cases, even bringing in workers to train them so they can run overseas operations that take jobs away from the U.S.

“If people are here and available, and perhaps need some retraining or perhaps aren’t willing to work for lower wages, it’s just a shame that these companies won’t hire them,” said Chris McManes, spokesman for IEEE-USA, which advocates for engineering and high-tech workers.

He said there are some legitimate uses for H-1B visas, but a better solution would be to pass a bill boosting the number of green cards, or permanent legal status, and to give more of them on the basis of high-skilled employment.

There is broad agreement in Congress on the need to bring in more high-tech workers, and House Republicans have even advanced a bill that would open up more green cards for those who earn advanced math, science, engineering or technology degrees from American universities.

Indeed, for years, analysts have said the U.S. immigration system rewards family reunification more than it rewards those with critical skills that could boost the economy.

But Democrats argue border security, stricter interior enforcement, legalization of illegal immigrants and a rewrite of the legal immigration system should all be tied together. That means the popular stand-along proposal has become trapped in the broader immigration debate.

“It’s basically the chip that’s holding that whole comprehensive bill together,” said Neil Ruiz, a senior policy analyst at the Brookings Institution.

He said Senate Democrats will now have to grapple with whether they are willing to uncouple the high-skilled workers from the rest of the debate.

Already, some immigrant-rights advocates have argued that tying all illegal immigrants together could jeopardizes chances for legalization for younger ones, known as Dreamers after the Dream Act legislation.

Democrats have calculated that the only way to get a broad legalization is to keep businesses and unions in the same coalition.

However, there could be major economic benefits to passing just the high-tech bill alone. The Congressional Budget Office has calculated that about two-thirds of the benefits that expanded immigration would bring to the federal budget could be earned by passing the House’s high-tech bill.

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