The immigration reform proposals now being hashed out by the Senate Judiciary Committee include several ideas that would benefit highly skilled foreign workers. However, it's important to keep the topic of guest workers in perspective.
While the tech industry pays closest attention to H-1Bs and similar visa programs, these make up just a slice of the issues now being faced on Capitol Hill. Overall, Washington is focused more on areas like border security and paths to citizenship than it is on the impact guest workers have on IT. That said, the main proposals impacting STEM workers are found in the Senate's "Gang of Eight" bill, otherwise known as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act:
- Making it easier for foreign graduates of American universities to get work permits.
- Providing opportunities for advanced degree holders from American universities to petition for work visas without going through an employer.
- Lifting the annual H-1B cap from 65,000 to more than 115,000, and creating a more flexible system that could raise the cap, when necessary.
- Allowing H-1B visa holders to get green cards in a shorter period. Currently, the wait for workers from "oversubscribed" countries such as China and India can be six or seven years — or more. Reform advocates say the system is antiquated and ignores current migration patterns.
- Giving employment authorization to spouses of H-1B workers.
Tech companies have thrown their weight behind such proposals, but the sector's rank and file has its own wish list, at least as expressed by the Programmers Guild, a national organization of technology professionals. Kim Berry, the group's president, has these proposals:
- H-1B workers must be paid at least $100,000 annually.
- H-1B positions must be advertised before they are filled, and a good-faith effort made to hire a qualified U.S. citizen.
- A $3,000 annual fee would be added to every H-1B visa.
The Guild’s efforts at reform, however, are dwarfed by the effort and money being spent by industry to ease the H-1B’s limits. In sizing up Capitol Hill’s response, Berry says: "We have a few Congressmen on our side, but it doesn’t look good. The majority are buying into the idea that there is a shortage of tech workers." The Special Report:
As to the overall bill's fate, just a few weeks ago, many observers gave the immigration reform bill a fair chance of passing. Now, though, as the Judiciary Committee works through the contentious process of marking up the bill -- wading through the some 300 amendments that have been added and negotiating which ones will make it to the Senate floor -- things aren't so clear-cut. And remember: Even if the bill does clear the Senate, it must wind its way through the House of Representatives, and then make it through a conference committee where the chambers have to resolve any differences in their two versions. Then the president has to sign it. While many believe that's a foregone conclusion right now, no one can be sure the package will become law until a final version is sent to the White House. Of course, politics rules in all this. Many observers believe some kind of package will be implemented because both parties have much to gain by supporting reform. "Politically, what happens when you take 11 million undocumented and make them legal? You create 11 million new voters," observes Mario Musil, an attorney in Orlando, Fla. "Republicans don’t want Obama to get all the credit. So I think they will go out and push for something pro-business and pro-undocumented immigrants as well."