A final, desperate -- and doomed -- push for H-1B restrictions

Senate expected to vote next week on immigration bill, but will see amendments proposed, including one from Sens. Grassley and Brown

WASHINGTON -- The Senate is expected to vote next week on an immigration bill, and it is likely to pass after one last fight to give U.S. workers hiring preference over foreigners with H-1B visas.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) are backing a proposed amendment to the immigration bill that would require employers to "first offer a vacant position to an equally or better qualified American worker" before filling the job with an H-1B worker.

This lack of preference in the current bill is sore point with Grassley.

The Senate immigration bill, as initially drafted by a bipartisan group of senators, the so called "gang of eight," included U.S. worker preference in hiring. The tech industry opposed it, and worked with an ally, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), to get the clause removed.

Hatch reached an agreement with U.S. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), part of the gang of eight to eliminate U.S. worker preference. The judiciary committee then voted to strip the provisions from the bill before sending it to the floor.

Grassley opposed the Hatch and Schumer changes without success. His ability to win support for hiring preference has not improved since.

"The (H-1B) program was never meant to replace qualified American workers, but it was instead intended as a means to fill gaps in highly specialized areas of employment," said Grassley, in announcing his support for the new effort to restore preference.

The preference language, and other restrictions, were mostly removed from the immigration bill. The restrictions now apply only to H-1B dependent firms, mostly large offshore outsourcing firms.

Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) also support the latest amendment.

If the Senate approves an immigration bill, it would then move on to the House of Representatives, which may have its own bill.

The Senate bill, as it stands, imposes the most visa restrictions on offshore outsourcing firms, including one provision to limit their use of visa holders to half their workforces.

If immigration bill reaches the president's desk and it imposes restrictions on big offshore visa users, India is expected to complain to World Trade Organization. The Indian government will argue that access to visas is an essential part of free trade.

U.S. lawmakers are countering India's concerns by raising their own complaints about India's trade practices. The complaints suggest that the visa restrictions in the Senate's bill may be fodder for negotiations.

Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Hatch, its ranking member, last week accused India of blocking the sale of U.S.-made IT products there and said India's trade policies "coerce U.S. companies to transfer their technology to local industry."

Schumer is complaining that the sale of New York dairy products are blocked in India.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS 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.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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