Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Jeff Flake of Arizona have introduced legislation that would double the number of visas given out annually for foreign workers in highly skilled occupations to 195,000.
The senators will try to get the measure added as an amendment to any legislation to resolve the political standoff over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program.
"Senator Hatch strongly believes merit-based, high-skilled immigration needs to be part of the discussion and will be pursuing available avenues for his bill, including offering it as an amendment on the floor," said spokesman Matt Whitlock.
That is assuming a Senate floor debate over DACA legislation is held. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., tentatively agreed to one as part of an agreement with Democrats to end last weekend's government shutdown but did not guarantee it. And immigration negotiations between the White House and Congress change frequently.
The H-1B visa program gives out 85,000 visas annually through the Department of Homeland Security to foreign workers in high-tech fields such as software development and engineering through a lottery. The Hatch-Flake legislation, dubbed the Immigration Innovation bill, or I-Squared bill, would expand that to potentially as many as 195,000 if certain unspecified requirements are met. It would also allow the visa recipients' spouse to work in the U.S. and give visa holders a grace period to find a new job without losing their status.
The legislation is being heavily backed by business groups, which have been clamoring for years to expand the program. "The senators’ proposed I-Squared Act is an important step in protecting U.S. workers, investing in STEM education, and ensuring that we can recruit people to fill jobs here in the U.S.," said Brad Smith, president of Microsoft.
Shikha Dalmia, policy analyst with the free-market Reason Foundation called it a step in the right direction, noting that the current visa levels do not come close to matching employer demand. "It will give much-needed relief to the high-tech sector when it is facing an exceedingly tight labor market, which is getting tighter by the day," she said.
The proposal likely will not be warmly received by the White House, which has been seeking to scale back the program. Officials within the Department of Homeland Security are reportedly planning to revise the law to reduce the number of visas. In a December public notice, DHS said it would considering limiting the ability of spouses of H-1B holders to be able to work in the U.S.
Unions that represent high-tech workers dispute the need for the program, charging that companies prefer the workers because they can be paid less that native-born workers with the same skills. "The H-1B program has done nothing in 25 years to resolve a perceived shortage of high-tech workers. If that were the program’s purpose, it has failed. Expanding the program with the I-Squared bill would simply grant U.S. employers more access to foreign workers who would be precarious, completely dependent on their employers, and captive in their labor market for the most productive years of their careers," said Stan Sorcher, labor representative for the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace.