Obama has big options for green card, H-1B reform without Congress

He could make changes to the system that would shape how it works and how many visas are available

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Obama's administration has expanded the OPT extension by broadening the number of eligible degrees.

The administration has also signaled an interest in raising the H-1B cap, but in lieu of an increase via immigration reform there are discussions among lawmakers about coming up with ways to make it easier for U.S. firms get H-1B visas, according to two independent sources familiar with the talks.

For now, the oversubscribed H-1B visa is distributed via lottery. But some lawmakers could move toward a system that gives priority to U.S.-based firms, which could disadvantage offshore IT services companies. Others caution that such a change might have little impact since it wouldn't apply to large U.S.-based H-1B users and could prompt offshore-based firms to apply for visas through U.S.-based subsidiaries.

The administration could also try to implement, administratively, a 50-50 rule, that seeks to limit the use of H-1B visas to half a firm's U.S.-based workforce. This change, if implemented, could curb visa use by the largest IT services firms. But the legal ability to do this without congressional action is not clear.

Ron Hira, a public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said the green card proposal outlined by Morrison could affect the "careful coalition" that has backed comprehensive immigration reform.

"The green cards for employers have been a carrot -- or maybe a stick -- to induce the high-tech employers and the U.S Chamber [of Commerce] to support comprehensive Immigration reform," said Hira. "In other words, if Obama gives the high-tech industry what it wants, then it is less likely that (Mark) Zuckerberg and (Bill) Gates will be fighting for comprehensive immigration reform."

On creating a system that makes H-1B visas priority based, Hira in Senate testimony last year recommended prioritizing advanced degree graduates of U.S. universities. "If there is any increase in the cap, and I don't think it is warranted, it should be allocated towards advanced degree graduates of U.S. universities," said Hira at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute, believes the president's executive reforms should mainly focus on the unauthorized immigrant population.

"That's the most pressing issue in the system, because having 5% of the labor market exploitable and lacking in labor and employment rights is bad for everyone, but especially for low-wage workers," said Costa. "I don't see a strong argument for tinkering at the edges of the employment-based system at this moment."

"Employers aren't the ones who are suffering and getting torn apart from their families," said Costa.

"Support for immigration and coming up with a solution for the unauthorized immigrant population is high even among conservatives, according to almost every poll, so I don't see many political consequences if he stays within the bounds of the law," said Costa.

If Obama were to take executive actions, they would not be repealed until 2017 at the earliest, he said.

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 © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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