High-tech visa debate comes to Congress via 'blue cards'

Lobbying group has been distributing the cards to lawmakers to highlight differences between U.S., European immigration policies.

To highlight the problems that high--tech workers face getting green cards, all members of Congress now have "blue cards." The Compete America coalition has been distributing the cards to lawmakers during meetings, one of several industry lobbying efforts on competitiveness issues in the last few weeks of the year.

On one side, the cards highlight Europe's blue-card immigration provisions, which allow highly educated workers to apply for renewable two-year visas. The European visas take just one or two months to process.

On the flip side, lawmakers are given a summary of the U.S. green-card system that the European Union is targeting to lure high-tech workers. The lobbying cards note that there are not enough green cards for highly skilled workers who want to work in the United States, and the wait time is five to 10 years.

"The highly educated will just have to wait," the cards say.

Robert Hoffman, a co-chairman of Compete America and a lobbyist for Oracle, said the hope is that lawmakers can easily share the information on the cards with their colleagues. So far, the feedback has been good, with sympathetic lawmakers saying the cards help make the case.

Compete America also sent a letter to House and Senate leaders, urging them to address H-1B visas and green cards for highly skilled workers this year. "At a time when other nations are aggressively taking steps to improve their own competitive position, the United States is failing to do so by sustaining a highly-skilled visa system that turns away future innovators," they wrote.

Broad immigration legislation stalled in the Senate earlier this year, but there is fairly widespread support on Capitol Hill among Democrats and Republicans for a visa fix for highly skilled workers. Republicans in the high-tech caucus sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., advocating a list of competitiveness provisions they want to help pass this year. Green cards for highly skilled workers and H-1Bs are on the list.

Hoffman said there is growing recognition that human capital is a major driver of the economy, and that idea is being cited by presidential candidates like Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney. Even former Federal Reserve Board chief Alan Greenspan mentioned the issue in the opening chapter of his recent biography.

With immigration a controversial issue on Capitol Hill, there are lawmakers who would like to separate H-1B visas and green cards for highly skilled workers. The problem is that is only one of several short-term fixes like visas for agriculture workers that are being discussed.

Hoffman said the challenge is drafting a bill that addresses all the issues up for short-term fixes that still maintains bipartisan support, and then finding a legislative vehicle to move it.

"As long as Congress is in session and they're talking to us," Hoffman said, he sees reason to remain optimistic about action on green cards this year.