Grassley, Durbin plan to renew H-1B fight in Senate

Two visa critics will reintroduce bill requiring 'good faith' effort to hire U.S. citizens

Two U.S. senators plan to reintroduce legislation that would require employers to make a "good faith" effort to hire U.S. citizens over H-1B visa holders, after failing to win approval for a similar bill two years ago.

The earlier measure was introduced in March 2007 by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), but it died after being folded into a comprehensive immigration reform bill that was killed without coming up for a vote. The two lawmakers are aiming to introduce the new bill this week, according to a spokeswoman in Grassley's office.

The widespread layoffs being caused by the economic recession may help Grassley and Durbin this time around. Earlier this year, for instance, Grassley and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) succeeded at getting H-1B hiring restrictions on financial services firms that receive federal bailout money into the massive economic stimulus bill signed into law by President Barack Obama.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which had to award H-1B visas via a lottery system in 2007 and 2008, will begin accepting visa applications for the federal fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

And although the weak economy is expected to reduce the demand for visas somewhat, immigration attorneys and H-1B supporters believe that more than enough applications to meet the annual limit of 65,000 regular visas will again be quickly filed this year. The same is expected for the 20,000 visas that are set aside for foreign workers with advanced degrees from U.S. universities.

Among those driving the demand will be foreign graduates who didn't win visas in last year's lottery but were able to continue working in the U.S. on student visas under an extension approved by the Bush administration last April. Foreigners who graduated last spring and are still working on their student visas will also be eligible to apply for H-1B visas.

"This year, we are looking to clear the backlog," said Robert Hoffman, a vice president at Oracle Corp. and co-chair of Compete America, a Washington-based lobbying group that represents IT vendors, universities and other organizations that support an increase in the annual visa cap.

While there is support for raising the cap in Congress, proponents have been stymied by the lack of progress on the broader immigration-reform issue. Backers of immigration reform in the House and Senate want any H-1B changes to be included as part of a wider overhaul and not be treated separately.

Grassley and Durbin may be the two strongest critics of the H-1B program in the Senate. Grassley, for instance, recently called on Microsoft Corp. to give U.S. citizens and permanent residents job priority over H-1B holders as it lays off up to 5,000 workers.

Microsoft responded that it would lay off H-1B workers as part of the job cuts, but that it would continue to hire visa holders as well. And in a post on its public policy blog Monday, the software vendor renewed its argument for raising the cap.

The bill that Grassley and Durbin proposed in 2007, then called the H-1B and L-1 Visa Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act, will be reintroduced with some changes, but its broad thrust is expected to remain. The earlier bill would have required employers to advertise job openings for 30 days before submitting H-1B applications for those positions. It also sought to prevent employers from hiring H-1B workers and then outsourcing them to other companies.

The return of the Grassley-Durbin bill will raise the H-1B issue again and, ironically, give proponents of a cap increase a potential opportunity to seek one. But the coupling of H-1B changes and broader immigration-reform efforts also gives supporters of the program an argument to use against piecemeal efforts to set new restrictions, Hoffman pointed out. "We just urge restraint," he said.

Although Obama has talked about the need for immigration reform, it's uncertain when or if he will push Congress to take any action. And since his election, the president hasn't said anything about H-1B matters, although he has appointed people sympathetic to the visa program to serve in key positions.

In addition, the new administration is discussing the visa issue with interested parties. Just last week, for instance, Dean Garfield, president and CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council, said he had met with administration officials to discuss a number of issues, including the H-1B program.

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