A stinky onion blooms in the Senate, say H-1B critics

H-1B provisions added late to Senate immigration bill ensure there will be more fights ahead

With the H-1B fight over and lost, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) lashed out, almost flailing in the minutes before the Senate Judiciary Committee's final vote Tuesday.

The tech industry had won. It was getting late in the day and the committee was moments away from adopting, in a 16-2 vote, 19-pages of tech industry sponsored amendments to the H-1B provisions in the long-awaited Senate immigration bill.

With the votes against him, Grassley, a leading H-1B critic, dropped any need for niceties. "Let's peel back the onion and see how much this stinks," said Grassley (R-Iowa), earning some laughter from people in the committee room.

Grassley attacked the legislation across the board; other critics may follow suit in the months ahead as the bill's layers are peeled back and its provisions are analyzed.

The immigration bill now goes to the full Senate, where more attempts to amend it are expected before a final vote is taken some time in the next several months.

The Senate debate will begin next month.

The House, meanwhile, has been preparing its own comprehensive immigration bill for vote.

There are a lot of areas in the Senate bill that are certain to draw criticism, particularly some last-minute changes.

The original bill, drafted by a bipartisan Senate group dubbed the Gang of Eight, would raise the base cap on H-1B visas from 65,000 to 110,000, with an escalator that can increase the cap to 180,000 in increments of 10,000 in response to demand. The tech industry wanted a cap of at least 300,000.

The revised bill raises the initial cap to 115,000, a small, seemingly spiteful incremental increase.

The annual escalator was increased to 20,000, while the overall cap of 180,000 remains unchanged. The amendments add a provision that blocks escalator increases if occupational unemployment for the management, professional and related occupations is 4.5% or higher.

"Did the supporters of the amendment know that the average unemployment (rate) for this group was 3.7% last April, compared with what this amendment has, 4.5%?" said Grassley. "This amendment does nothing to stop huge increases in H-1B visas."

In the first quarter of this year the unemployment rate for management professionals was 3.8%; for computing and math specialists, 3.5%, and for tech architects and engineers, 3.8%.

The late amendments to the bill make a number of other changes to the recruitment provisions.

For instance, all H-1B hiring firms will be required to post jobs on a government sponsored Web site, but only so-called "dependent firms" -- not all companies -- will be required to offer a job to an equally or better qualified U.S. worker. Dependent firms are those with 15% or more of the workforce on visas.

"Requiring only the subset of H-1B dependent firms to offer jobs to better or equally qualified Americans cancels out the only possibly real and tangible protection that US workers would have gotten in this bill," said Daniel Costa, an immigration policy analyst at Economic Policy Institute.

But Costa said affected firms will use exceptions in the law to get around the requirement of considering an equally qualified American. One is the "intending immigrant" provision for workers being sponsored for a green card.

Costa said the new formula on the H-1B cap would allow it to rise much more quickly than to the original version proposed in the Senate bill.

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