Immigration bill's defeat will prompt 'Plan B' from H-1B proponents

Failure in Senate doesn't change tech industry's goal of raising visa cap

The demise of the U.S. Senate's comprehensive immigration reform legislation is a setback for the technology industry's push to increase the annual cap on H-1B visas. But count on a Plan B from H-1B proponents.

The Senate bill was the primary vehicle for efforts to raise the H-1B cap from its current limit of 65,000 visas per year, plus another 20,000 visas that are set aside for foreign workers who have advanced degrees from U.S. universities.

But the proposed legislation, which also would have mandated the development of a national electronic employment verification system, died an early death on Thursday after its sponsors failed to garner enough support for a procedural motion that sought to end debate on the bill and bring it to a vote. The motion got only 46 of the 60 "yes" votes that it needed in order to be approved.

However, the high-tech industry has other options for pursuing an increase in the visa cap, according to various policy analysts within the IT industry.

"There are several options -- it's just a matter of making the case," said Robert Hoffman, vice president of government and public affairs at Oracle Corp. and co-chair of Compete America, a Washington-based lobbying group that today vowed to continue its efforts to increase the H-1B cap.

The H-1B cap for the federal government's next fiscal year, which starts in October, was exhausted on the first day that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) began accepting visa applications in April. The USCIS received about 150,000 applications that day, and Hoffman said he thinks the strong demand for visas makes a compelling case for why an increase in the cap is urgently needed.

Option one for H-1B proponents: stand-alone legislation such as the so-called SKIL bill, which was reintroduced in both the House and Senate in April after failing to win approval last year. The bill -- officially called the Securing Knowledge, Innovation and Leadership Act -- would raise the cap to 115,000 visas and provide market-based mechanisms for further hikes. But a separate measure may be the least attractive option for H-1B backers because it could become a magnet for all sorts of bill-killing amendments related to immigration reform.

Option two: increasing the cap through an amendment to a spending bill. That approach has worked in the past.

Option three: adding an H-1B provision to one of a number of bills that Congress is considering as part of the Democratic majority's so-called Innovation Agenda -- such as legislation intended to improve science and engineering training programs. But the IT industry isn't likely to embrace legislation that is seen as partisan because it has backers for increasing the H-1B cap from both parties.

The Senate's action on the immigration reform bill means attention on the H-1B issue will shift to the House of Representatives, said Ken Wasch, president of the Software & Information Industry Association. The Washington-based SIIA issued a statement today saying that the high-tech industry will have trouble finding enough skilled workers if the H-1B cap isn't raised (download PDF).

At this point, Wasch said he isn't sure what the next step will be for H-1B proponents. But like Hoffman, he said that visa relief is needed. "Our companies have a huge problem," Wasch said. "And if the immigration problem is not solved, we create an enormous incentive for our companies to do more of their development work where talent is being developed."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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