Hi-tech firms hail US immigration bill

Behind-the-scenes wrangling helped industry to ditch controls in bill passed by Senate panel

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 May, 2013, 4:07am


More than any other group, the hi-tech industry got big wins in an immigration bill approved by the US Senate Judiciary Committee last week, thanks to concerted lobbying, an ideally positioned Senate ally and weak opposition.

The result amounted to a bonanza for the industry: unlimited green cards granting permanent residency status for foreigners with certain advanced US degrees and a huge increase in visas for highly skilled foreign workers.

Thanks to the intervention of Utah's Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, the industry succeeded in curtailing controls sought by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, aimed at protecting US workers.

In exchange, Hatch voted for the bill when it passed the committee, helping boost its bipartisan momentum as it heads to the Senate floor next month. For Durbin and his allies in organised labour, winning Hatch's support was a bitter victory.

"There was an agreement with the tech industry and Senator Hatch said he wanted more, and that was what it took to get his vote," Durbin said.

The tech industry "really used Senator Hatch's vote to improve their position in the bill. I understand that," Durbin said. "But I think in fairness now, I hope the industry is satisfied and they will not push this any further."

Hatch countered: "Look, these are companies looking to contribute to the American economy in a way that benefits American workers and American-trained foreign workers."

Even before the Judiciary Committee took up the bill, industry had seen key pieces of its wishlist granted. The legislation written by four Democratic and four Republican senators awards a permanent resident green card to any foreigner with a job offer in the US and an advanced degree in science, technology, engineering or maths from a US school. It also raised the limit on the H-1B visas that go to highly skilled immigrants from 65,000 a year to as many as 180,000.

But the increase in H-1B visas was accompanied by new requirements aimed at ensuring US workers get the first shot at jobs. Hi-tech industry leaders say they never agreed to those provisions; Durbin insists they did.

Once the bill's language became public and the tech industry began absorbing the details, they turned their attention to the next front in the battle: the Senate Judiciary Committee.

They found their champion in Hatch, whose state is a hi-tech employer. Seen as the one Republican swing vote on the committee, he was courted by the senators who wrote it, Durbin and Senator Chuck Schumer among them.

Its lobbyists began working behind the scenes with Hatch's office on a series of amendments he would introduce in the committee to undo key provisions Durbin had pressed for.

A provision that required tech companies to offer a job to an equally qualified US citizen over an H-1B holder was seen as unworkable by industry. Hatch sought to limit that requirement to companies most dependent on H-1B visas, thereby excluding many major US companies.

Last Tuesday, the final working day on the bill, word went out: There was a deal. And Hatch had won much of what he wanted.