A guide to H-1B, green card reform

There is increasing activity on high-skill visa reform in Congress. Here's what to watch for.

WASHINGTON -- Unlike with the debt limit debate, there is bipartisan interest in Congress in reforming high-skill immigration. New legislation is on its way, and here's what to watch for.

What bills have been introduced or are coming?

In the House, the most important Democratic initiative is from Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), whose district includes Silicon Valley. Her bill would make green cards available to students who earn advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- the so-called STEM fields. However, it isn't expected to go anywhere.

The person to watch instead is Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who heads the House Judiciary Committee. Smith appears interested in some limited immigration changes expected in a bill from Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). Chaffetz's bill, which is due "soon," is expected to call for elimination of the per-country limits on employment-based visas -- as green cards are officially called.

The U.S. has a cap of 140,000 employment-based visas a year. Spouses and children of the workers are counted against that cap. The U.S. limits the number of green cards per country to no more than 7% of the total available visas. In India, where there is a big demand for green cards, the wait for one can be as long as 10 years.

If the per-country cap were eliminated, green card applicants who have been waiting the longest might see their expected waiting times reduced. But applicants from countries with relatively short wait times might find themselves waiting longer. Tech companies might support elimination of the per-country cap, since that would likely increase the availability of workers from China and India. Employers will take what they can get, but they might be hoping for something better out of the Senate.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who heads the Senate subcommittee on immigration, said this week that he intends to introduce legislation that, similar to Lofgren's bill, will "staple" green cards to the diplomas of people who earn degrees in STEM fields. He is also promising reform of the H-1B visa process in his bill.

Overall outlook: If Schumer follows through and the House Judiciary Committee also produces legislation, a limited, targeted immigration reform bill could emerge. Both parties have strong reasons to please the tech industry.

What's the argument against Green Card 'staple' bills?

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) argued at a Senate hearing this week on high-skill immigration reform that legislation which automatically gives a green card to foreign graduates has the potential of turning universities into "visa mills."

Can Congress raise the H-1B cap without raising the cap?

There has been no proposal to specifically raise the H-1B cap, but Smith has pitched the idea of only offering H-1B visas to tech professionals.

The U.S. issues 85,000 H-1B visas annually, 20,000 of which are reserved for advanced degree holders. The H-1B is available to people with a wide range of skills, including writers, accountants, lawyers, clergy, librarians, musicians and fashion models.

Smith has suggested removing some of the non-tech categories from the H-1B visa. Such a move could reduce competition for the visa should demand pick up. As of this month, the U.S. has received nearly 35,000 petitions for H-1B visas.

True or false: Does H-1B law require U.S. workers be hired first?

In the H-1B debate, there is an often repeated belief that U.S. citizens must be given preference over foreigners in the hiring process. That's not true.

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