If immigration reform is dead, so is raising the H-1B cap

Passing comprehensive immigration reform legislation -- which is closely linked to the H-1B cap -- is unlikely

In a speech Wednesday on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) declared immigration reform dead.

He chastised and baited Republicans in Congress for blocking reform, and declared that winning the White House without the support of a growing Hispanic population will become mathematically impossible. "The Republican Presidential nominee, whoever he or she may be, will enter the race with an electoral college deficit they cannot make up," said Gutierrez.

Gutierrez didn't mention the H-1B visa in the speech, but if he's right, and comprehensive immigration reform is indeed dead, then so too is a provision in the bill that would have raised the cap on H-1B visas.

Immigration reform advocates have successfully blocked any effort to take up the immigration issue piecemeal. They don't want support for broader reform to peel away.

For the next few weeks, the IT industry and other supporters of such legislation will continue to push ahead on immigration reform.

While tech lobbyists agree that the odds of passing immigration legislation are slim and shrinking, they still aren't ruling out the possibility. So far, it's been mostly Democrats who are declaring immigration dead. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has yet to say so definitively.

There isn't much time left.

The long August recess will soon be here. After the recess, lawmakers will be spending a lot time in their districts campaigning for re-election. It's not too early to start thinking about what the next Congress might do, and if the Republicans take control of the Senate, the tech industry will face a new obstacle: Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Grassley is the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the immigration issue. He is the leading critic of the H-1B program in Congress, and he's in line to be the committee chairman if Republicans gain control of the Senate.

Grassley has been a consistent critic of the H-1B program through the years. In 2007, he said, "The H-1B program is so popular that it's now replacing the U.S. labor force." In May of last year, he criticized the bipartisan immigration bill that the Senate Judiciary Committee was about to approve by saying, "Let's peel back the onion and see how much this stinks." Grassley had tried, but failed, to add H-1B restrictions to the bill, the final version of which called for a doubling of the annual cap on H-1B visas, from 85,000 to 180,000.

Grassley offered multiple amendments to the Senate immigration bill in an attempt to lessen the need for H-1B visas. One amendment required a "good faith" effort to fill a job with a U.S. worker before offering it to an H-1B worker. That failed in the face of industry opposition, as did another Grassley amendment intended to protect women.

Karen Panetta, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Tufts University, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee for the IEEE, an organization of technical professionals, about the H-1B visa. She said the IEEE estimates that 80% of the visa holders are male.

Citing Panetta's testimony, Grassley introduced an amendment to ensure that women are not displaced by foreign workers 180 days before and after the H-1B worker is hired. He has sought to limit the number of H-1B workers any company can have to 50% of their U.S. workforce.

The willingness of Republican House lawmakers to bring up immigration reform in the time remaining before the election may have been hurt by the recent primary loss of former House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.)

David Brat, the challenger who defeated Cantor in the Virginia Republican primary, had attacked the former House majority leader's support for the H-1B visa program, calling it vehicle that gave employers access to "high-skilled cheap labor."

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 email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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