What's coming next in the tech immigration battle

This fall may be the make-or-break point for reform

Congress will begin its summer break this week without any plan for high-skill immigration. But here's what to watch for when lawmakers return in September.

House Republican leaders have been working on an immigration strategy since the Senate adopted its own immigration plan in May.

There is broad support in both chambers for increasing H-1B visas for the tech industry as well as making STEM green cards available to U.S. university graduates. But the pivotal issue in the reform fight isn't tech; it's resolving the issue of legalization for 11 million undocumented people already in the U.S. If lawmakers don't resolve their differences on that issue, the visa reforms sought by the tech industry will fail.

Come this fall, Republican leaders intend to take up various components of comprehensive immigration reform separately. Border security may become one bill, expanding high-tech visas another. E-Verify and agriculture may be separate bills as well.

House leaders have to decide what bills to take up first. It could be border security, high tech or something else.

But once the House approves one immigration bill, such as border security, it may be possible to create a conference with the Senate on immigration with the goal of preparing a broader immigration package, according to a number of sources involved in this process, all of whom spoke on background.

House lawmakers could also employ a "wrap-around," rule, where each bill is debated and amended, and as each bill passes it is attached to one another, creating a comprehensive bill. The House could also fire off a series of separate bills for the Senate to act on.

If the Republicans take up a high-skill bill, it will likely be the Skills Visa Act, sponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). It raises the H-1B cap to 155,000 from 65,000, and doubles the number of H-1B visas set aside for U.S. STEM grads to 40,000.

The Senate immigration bill allows up to 180,000 H-1B visas, and provides for unlimited green cards for U.S. STEM grads. Issa's bill provides up to 55,000 STEM green cards.

Despite their similarities, Issa's bill faces problems with the Democrats. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who has led on tech immigration for the Democrats, has faulted Issa's elimination of the diversity lottery, calling it a "zero-sum" immigration approach on green cards. The Republican bill allocates green cards for STEM U.S. grads by reallocating visas that are now distributed via the diversity lottery.

But nothing will happen unless the House and Senate reach an agreement on the 11 million undocumented aliens. The Republicans could offer alternatives that fall short of what the Senate and Democrats want, but pose difficult votes for them nonetheless. Proposals that seek legalization for children, but not necessarily their parents, or some variation of the Dream Act, could emerge out of the House as an alternative to a broader legalization path for the 11 million undocumented residents.

This week, tech lobbying groups joined with many other industries, including farming, manufacturing, hospitality and other industries, to urge Congress to take action on immigration. The letter was signed by more than 400 groups.

There is some concern that lawmakers may return from their summer break with less interest in this issue, depending on what they hear from constituents.

Dan Turrentine, vice president of government relations at TechNet and co-chair of Compete America, said the intent is to remind lawmakers of the broad support among many industry groups.

Tech is working with other industry groups because it does not expect a separate, stand-along tech bill to win approval. The tech immigration reform sought by industry groups, "is only going to get signed into law if it's part of a broader package," said Turrentine.

This article, What's coming next in the tech immigration battle, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing 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 e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

How to supercharge Slack with ‘action’ apps
Shop Tech Products at Amazon