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5/31/2007
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New Immigration Bill Amendment Could Help Keep Foreign Tech Workers In U.S.

A proposal to create a dual green-card system that favors high-tech talent has bipartisan support in the Senate.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators next week is expected to introduce to the immigration reform bill an amendment that proposes to retain a pool of 140,000 employer-sponsored green cards for foreign workers seeking permanent residency in the United States.

Amendment S.1249 -- being co-sponsored by Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; John Cornyn, R-Texas; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Orrin Hatch, R-Pa.; and Robert Bennett, R-Utah -- proposes that the United States create a dual green-card system that, in addition to a new merit-point green card system that's proposed in the main bill, would also keep an annual pool of 140,000 employer-sponsored green cards for foreign workers.

The revised legislation also proposes the United States establish no limit on H-1B visas for foreign professionals with master's or doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM fields.

"This would set up a complementary and parallel employer-sponsored system to the merit system," said Robert Hoffman, Oracle's VP of government affairs and co-chair of Compete America, a coalition of technology companies. "This system would be more like Australia's," where immigration is granted in dual programs that includes employer-based sponsorship and merit points.

By the United States retaining a system allowing employer-based green cards to be issued each year, businesses would have better control over the talent they'd like to keep in the country, say tech employers.

One of the biggest criticisms that tech employers have about the current immigration reform bill being hammered out in the Senate is the proposed merit-based green card system. The process awards individuals with points based on the person's education, skills, and other factors.

Tech companies complain that a point-based system would shift to government bureaucrats too much control about the kind of talent pool that's available to employers in the United States. Amendment S.1249 proposes retaining employer-based immigration and expanding permanent residency to those foreigners with advanced STEM degrees, said Hoffman.

The amendment also proposes eliminating caps on H-1B visas issued to foreign students who have advanced degrees from U.S. universities. Right now, in addition to the 65,000 H-1B visas issued each year by the United States, an additional 20,000 H-1B visas are available to foreign students with advanced degrees from U.S. universities. The new amendment would eliminate that annual ceiling for advanced U.S. degrees.

In addition, the amendment also proposes providing 20,000 H-1B visas annually to foreigners with advanced degrees in STEM fields from foreign schools.

"Master's and Ph.D.s would be exempt from the cap on H-1Bs and green cards," said Hoffman.

The amendment also proposes retracting a provision in the immigration reform bill that H-1B visa holders must have degrees that match their jobs. However, under the amendment, an H-1B visa holder with a degree in mathematics could continue to apply for work in a software engineering job, even without the software engineering degree.

"We're strongly in favor of this amendment," said Hoffman. "It's the single most important amendment in this [immigration] bill."

Not everyone feels the same way. In a statement, U.S. tech-professional advocacy group the Programmers Guild called the amendment "a declaration of war on American tech workers."

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