Groups await changes in immigration bill

When the Senate returns next week, the business community will watch the immigration debate with trepidation, not wanting to scuttle the bill's movement while at the same time calling for fundamental changes.

Tech firms, upset about the provisions in the bill related to visas for skilled foreign workers, known as H-1Bs, are not yet saying whether they would oppose it.

Instead, they are banking on an amendment to be offered by Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., John Cornyn, R-Texas, Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. that would exempt from the H-1B annual cap foreign workers with advanced degrees from U.S. universities or with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math.

The amendment also would add a market escalator to the annual cap on H-1B visas, set at 115,000 in the bill. For foreign workers seeking permanent residency, the amendment would create a parallel track for employer-sponsored green cards that would operate side-by-side with the bill's merit-based point system for green card applicants.

"That's what we're promoting right now. It's building momentum," said Bo Cooper, an immigration attorney at Paul Hastings law firm who advises Compete America, a coalition advocating for access to high-skilled workers. "If this amendment doesn't pass, the bill will not address the talent acquisition crisis that's facing employers," Cooper said.

Asked whether Compete America would oppose the bill if the amendment does not pass, Cooper said, "We don't want to cross that bridge yet."

Another business group that is on the verge of opposing the bill is the HR Coalition for a Legal Workforce, comprised of human resources managers and some tech groups. The HR Coalition is focused solely on Title 3 of the immigration bill, which would establish a mandatory electronic employment verification system for all employers.

"We carefully tried not to attack the effort" in the Senate, said coalition head Mike Aitken, director of government affairs at the Society for Human Resource Management. "But the way Title 3 is currently structured -- we have some real problems with it. We don't think it's going to work. Unless it gets changed, I'm not sure how we can support Title 3."

Coalition members are still trying to strike a positive tone. "We want an effective employment verification system," Aitken said. "We're not trying to get away from our obligations. Just don't saddle us with something that's not going to work."

Other business interests took a hit last week when the Senate voted to halve a proposed guest worker program to 200,000 foreign workers a year.

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