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POLITICS: PennAve

Congress looks to bump up high-tech visas

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Politics,White House,Congress,Brian Hughes,Immigration,PennAve,Dick Durbin,Visas

Overshadowed by the broader immigration debate about border security and a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants -- but critically important for the American economy -- is the number of visas awarded to highly skilled workers each year.

In immigration talks on Capitol Hill, leaders from both parties are coalescing behind a blueprint that would grant as many as 180,000 H-1B visas to such workers, up from the 65,000 now dispensed in a highly competitive lottery.

They say the demand for such employees has forced their hand. In California, for example, Canadian companies are targeting foreign technology workers, reminding them that the United States doesn't permit as many H-1B visas as their neighbor to the north. And Google, Facebook and other tech giants have long lobbied for an increase in H-1B visas.

With his latest call for immigration reform, President Obama framed the increase as a way to keep talented foreign workers, many of whom come here for college, on American soil.

"Immigration reform would make it easier for highly skilled immigrants and those who study at our colleges and universities to start businesses and create jobs right here in America," Obama said in his weekly address. "The demand for goods and services would go up -- creating more jobs for American workers."

But what supporters are framing as necessary to bolster entrepreneurship and keep specialized employees in the U.S., critics are slamming as a thinly veiled attempt by large corporations to secure cheaper labor.

It's a concern that even leaders of the so-called Gang of Eight acknowledged in moving a bill out of the Senate.

"Americans would be shocked to know that these H-1Bs are not going to [American companies]," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said at a recent congressional hearing. "They're going to these firms, largely in India, who are finding workers, engineers, who will work at low wages in the U.S. for three years and pay a fee to Infosys or these companies. I think that is an abuse of what we are trying to achieve here."

Other critics say tech companies are bypassing U.S. workers who have the necessary high-tech skills.

A May study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that nearly 15 percent of recent information systems graduates are unemployed.

As a compromise, senators agreed that companies with more than 15 percent of skilled employees on H-1B visas would have to wait at least a year before replacing an American worker with a foreign one.

In the piecemeal approach being pursued by House Republicans, lawmakers are more likely to address work visas before they reach a solution on the question of citizenship for the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

However, some supporters of the Senate immigration fix said lawmakers are focusing too much on specialized labor.

"The fact that you have more high-skilled [slots being allowed] than low-skilled shows that Washington doesn't understand our labor market," said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. "The argument that [a guest worker program] will bring in cheap labor is false. It actually helps the middle class."

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