Grassley plan for tougher H-1B enforcement revealed

The fight to raise the per-country cap is getting complicated as companies lobby Congress for easier access to foreign workers

TechNet, an industry lobbying group, Wednesday released a letter signed by nearly 350 companies that calls on Congress to eliminate the per-country cap on green cards just as details of the latest U.S. Senate proposal came to light.

The TechNet letter was sent to six key lawmakers, including Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Grassley may be the most important person on the list.

By a 389-to-15 vote, the House of Representatives late last year passed a bill that would eliminate the current per-country caps on green card holders.

But when that bill reached the Senate, Grassley put a hold on it.

His strategy has been to not let the IT industry win a visa battle without giving up something in return.

According to newly disclosed details from a draft copy of a proposal put forth by Grassley, the Iowa Republican would agree to lift the cap if employers that depend on H-1B visas had to undergo annual audits of their visa use conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor.

A company is considered dependent on the H-1B visa if it has 51 or more full-time workers and 15% or more of those employees hold the visa. The audit plan would impact IT services providers and offshore companies that rely heavily on work visas.

The draft proposal limits annual audits to companies with more than 100 employees. It also calls on the government to "make available to the public an executive summary or report" describing the "general findings" of an audit.

Enforcement of H-1B activity is currently handled by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration laws. There is concern that the Labor Department might enforce regulations more strictly than the DHS Citizenship and Immigration Service -- though the provision that the Labor Department take over H-1B enforcement might not be a deal-breaker to an agreement on the bill.

Since the majority of tech workers come from India and China, the push to eliminate the per-country caps is an important goal for some large IT employers, including Microsoft. Big companies are less likely to be affected by Grassley's audit provisions.

The U.S. makes 140,000 employment-based green cards available each year, but it limits each country to 7% of the total.

Because of the per-country cap, Indian and Chinese workers sometimes face multiyear waits for green cards, and many have to return home because they can't get permanent residency, say the IT employers.

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

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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