House panel approves bill increasing H-1B limits

The bill would increase the number of visa allowed in a handful of programs

A U.S. House of Representatives committee has approved legislation that would more than double the current skilled immigration H-1B cap with the focus on science and technology workers.

The House Judiciary Committee approved the Supplying Knowledge Based Immigrants and Lifting Levels of STEM Visa Act, or the SKILLS Visa Act, by a vote of 20-14 late Thursday.

The bill would set aside 55,000 green cards each year for employers to hire foreign graduates of U.S. universities with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

The SKILLS Visa Act would also increase the annual H-1B visa cap to 155,000, from the current 65,000, and increase the additional H-1Bs set aside for foreign graduates of U.S. universities from 20,000 to 40,000.

The committee approval will help benefit the U.S. economy and aid the "creation of American jobs," Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican and main sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. The bill "allows immigrants who graduate from American universities with advanced degrees in STEM fields to remain here and use their talents to make this country a better place."

The bill next moves to the floor of the full House. The House action comes on the same day that the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill that includes high-skill immigration provisions. The Senate bill faces an uphill fight in the House.

Some tech workers groups have denounced proposals to raise the H-1B visa cap, saying there are plenty of U.S. tech workers still looking for jobs.

The Issa bill changes the calculation of prevailing wages that companies need to give foreign workers who receive visas. That provision is an effort to protection U.S. workers, Issa said in a press release.

The bill would also allocate up to 10,000 green cards a year for alien entrepreneurs who can attract investment from venture-capital firms to establish businesses creating at least five jobs.

Several tech trade groups praised the House bill. For years, several large tech companies have called on Congress to increase the H-1B visa cap, saying they can't find enough skilled workers in the U.S. to fill thousands of jobs.

The Consumer Electronics Association, in a statement, called high-skilled immigration a "key priority for the nation."

"For America to remain the world's leading innovator, we must embrace immigration policy reforms that allow the United States to remain a magnet for the best and brightest to work and build their businesses, create new jobs and contribute to the overall success of our economy," Gary Shapiro, CEA's president and CEO, said in a statement.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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