House Democrats push ahead on immigration, H-1B

Democrats introduce their version of Senate's immigration bill, say debate on issue is likely to produce compromise legislation

WASHINGTON -- U.S. House Democrats are attempting to restart debate on a comprehensive immigration reform in the midst of the government shutdown.

Democratic lawmakers Tuesday introduced a House version of the Senate's comprehensive immigration bill that was approved by a vote of 68 to 32 in that Democratic-controlled chamber.

Democrats believe there are enough votes in The House of Representatives to approve a comprehensive reform bill, but any action on the bill is dependent on Republicans.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who joined about two dozen other Democratic lawmakers Tuesday to discuss their plan, said the two sides are more likely to compromise on immigration that other issues, citing the Senate's bipartisan vote.

It's unclear how open Democrats will be to any proposed changes to the Senate bill by House Republicans.

In pressing ahead on immigration, the Democrats seemed intent on curbing the angry rhetoric of recent weeks. The shutdown was barely mentioned. There were no flashes of the anger or frustration by lawmakers. And Pelosi said she wasn't trying to put House Speak John Boehner on the defensive.

"This is not a challenge to the Speaker, this is a suggestion," said Pelosi at one point about the Democratic bill.

U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., said companies in her state, including Microsoft, "have been making a strong case to Congress that fixing out immigration system is a top priority."

"Whether it's an ultrasound manufacturer who needs an acoustic engineer, a video game developer looking for a 3-D modeler, companies in my district are in extreme need of specialized high skilled workers," said DelBene. The bill "has increased protections for American workers so they aren't displaced," she added.

The House bill is based on a Senate immigration bill (S.744) that would increase the annual H-1B cap from 65,000 to 110,000, and includes an escalator that would allow the cap to rise to as high as 180,000.

Presently, another 20,000 H-1B visas are set aside for those holding advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, so called STEM degrees, from U.S. universities. The Senate bill would increase that total to 25,000.

The bill exempts U.S. grads with advanced STEM degrees from green card caps.

The bill includes provisions that would raise wages for H-1B workers by eliminating the lowest wage levels in first tier of the four tier prevailing wage levels.

The law currently allows employers to place H-1B workers at third party sites, provided the employer is supervising the worker. The Senate bill prohibits employers from placing workers at third party sites. The bill also sets numerical limits on the numbers of H-1B workers.

If a company employs more than 50 workers, by 2017 there is a 50% limit on H-1B and L-1.

While the Democrats have stressed a comprehensive approach to immigration, House Republicans have been approaching it piecemeal.

In June, the House Judiciary Committee supported the Skills Visa Act (H.R. 2131), which would raise the H-1B cap to 155,000, and doesn't adjust upward. It increase the exemption for U.S. STEM grads to 40,000.

Both bills authorize spouses of H-1B visa holders to work. The Republican bill also creates a three tier wage system for H-1B workers.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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