Analysis: The next H-1B fight begins by Labor Day

Planned legislation could include a way to raise the cap on H-1B visas

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) plans to introduce a comprehensive immigration reform bill by Labor Day that seems certain to include a way to increase the H-1B cap. By introducing the bill in the worse possible economic climate, and then citing Labor Day as his deadline for introducing it, you could almost argue that Schumer is egging on his opponents.

But that's not new for him. Among the people he has enlisted to help him is Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who testified this year at an immigration committee hearing that the cap protects U.S. workers from global competition, creating a "privileged elite."

Schumer's view follows naturally from his unabashed support of the H-1B visa program and his belief that foreign workers are critical to U.S. economic success. And as head of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security, Schumer is in a position to make changes.

Schumer outlined his plans in an interview with Associated Press last week; the bill is still being drafted.

The Senate has had no problem approving increases in the H-1B cap in the past. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, for instance, proposed raising the cap on H-1B visas to 115,000 and included a market-cap provision that allowed the the number of visas to grow by 20% a year if the prior cap was reached.

The cap is now set at 85,000, which includes 20,000 that are set aside for people who earn masters degree.

This time around, Schumer may take a different approach on high-skilled immigration.

One proposal that may get traction in Congress would create an independent commission to manage employment-based visas. The commission would determine whether there are labor shortages and have the authority to make annual adjustments on the cap based on economic need. That idea was pitched by the AFL-CIO in April.

Schumer will also have to deal with Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), both of whom are on the immigration subcommittee and have introduced legislation restricting H-1B use to the ire of Indian government and industry groups, in particular. Durbin and Grassley are among the harshest critics of the H-1B visa.

In a speech last month before an immigration policy group, Schumer outlined what he wants to achieve when it comes to high skilled workers.

"We must encourage the world's best and brightest individuals to come to the United States and create new technologies and business that will employ countless American workers, but must discourage businesses from using our immigration laws as a means to obtain temporary and less-expensive foreign labor to replace capable American workers," said Schumer.

Schumer also endorsed a report in 2007, Sustaining New York's and the U.S. Global Financial Services Leadership, prepared by McKinsey & Co., that called for increasing access to H-1B visas to help keep the financial services industry competitive. President Barack Obama has appointed a top McKinsey official, Diana Farrell, to serve in his administration as a deputy economic advisor.

Angela Kelly, vice president for immigration policy and advocacy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based group that's headed John Podesta, President Clinton's former chief of staff, said an element of any immigration reform bill would have to be its labor protections.

"How do we ensure that by bringing these workers in we're not disadvantaging American workers and how do we invest in our folks for the long haul, so that we've got kids in computer science, math, and engineering programs, which are right now, frankly, dominated by kids who aren't from the U.S. That's the reality and we need to deal with it," she said, in a conference call with reporters.

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