Democrats seek major H-1B, green card reform

New bill would gives green card to science, advanced-degree tech grads and people who create businesses

WASHINGTON -- Silicon Valley's representative in Congress, Democrat Zoe Lofgren, has proposed a sweeping reform of the H-1B visa and green card programs in a new bill released Tuesday.

The bill, which will likely be the benchmark Democratic proposal in Congress on reform of the tech visa, would make green cards available to students who earn advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at certain schools.

It would also make green cards available to foreign entrepreneurs who create new businesses, while seemingly discouraging use of the H-1B visa by offshore firms, in particular.

In a time of high unemployment, this bill seeks to frame visa reform as a job creation issue. The legislation's very name underscores this message; it's called Immigration Driving Entrepreneurship in America (IDEA).

"More than 52% of Silicon Valley startups were founded or co-founded by immigrants, and immigrant-founded companies produced $52 billion in sales and employed 450,000 workers in 2005," Lofgren said in a statement. "Immigration has historically made our economy stronger. My bill embraces that history and encourages the world's thinkers and doers to join us."

President Barack Obama has made tech visa reform a priority, but he may have left the details to Congress.

Lofgren's bill includes provisions that may make it harder for some firms to use the H-1B visa.

The H-1B visa is granted for three years and then is routinely extended for another three years. But this bill eliminates the three-year extension for "exclusively temporary workers," a move that may hit offshore IT services providers that rely heavily on the H-1B visa.

Lofgren has 13 Democratic co-sponsors, including George Miller, also from California, who is chairman of the House Democrat Policy Committee and the ranking Democrat on the House Education and Labor Committee. Another sponsor is Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, who is chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Task Force and is one of the leaders on comprehensive immigration reform.

Supporters of broader immigration reform have previously opposed a piecemeal approach to visa reform. This bill, however, has some Dream Act-like provisions that provide permanent residency to some students.

But there are no Republican co-sponsors on the bill, which means it may have trouble moving forward.

Lofgren "is working to secure bipartisan support, and she's confident she can," said her spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro.

Lofgren also serves on the House Judiciary Committee, which is chaired Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who has voiced support for doubling the H-1B cap. Smith has not yet introduced legislation to accomplish that.

Smith has said he wants to make the E-Verify system, an electronic system for checking an employee's credentials, mandatory, and it is possible that he could include some visa reforms in that proposal. A spokesman for Smith said today that they have no plans to include the H-1B visa issue with E-Verify, however.

The new green card category for students who earn advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (fields of study collectively known as STEM) seeks to limit the eligible schools to those classified by the National Science Foundation as a research institution "or as otherwise excelling in STEM instruction."

Green-card-seeking students will also need job offers in fields related to their degrees, and the salary levels of those jobs will have to meet or exceed the prevailing wage of the particular occupation.

Meanwhile, the proposal for green cards for foreign entrepreneurs -- the "startup business and job creation visa" -- calls for "conditional green cards" for entrepreneurs that can show sponsorship by a venture capital company, angel investor or qualified employer and an investment of at least $500,000.

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