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Work Visas Back On Congressional Agenda

The Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security and Prosperity Act of 2009 would make it easier for foreigners with advanced degrees from U.S. universities to get green cards.
This story was updated Dec. 17. Information in the original story on increasing the number of H-1B visas was incorrect.

Move aside healthcare. Immigration reform is headed back to Capitol Hill, with proposed changes to visas provided to foreign students who get advanced tech degrees in the United States.

Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, and several co-sponsors are behind the 600-page Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security and Prosperity Act of 2009. It proposes making it easier for foreigners with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from U.S. universities and who have worked in their field in the U.S. for three years to get green card employment visas. They would be fast-tracked to green cards, which provide foreigners with permanent residency status, rather than lingering in H-1B visa limbo, says Alex Nowrasteh, a policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

"If they have an employer who wants to hire them, then instead of the H-1B visas, they can apply for green cards without numerical limitation," Nowrasteh says.

Foreign students with advanced technology degrees often must leave the U.S. shortly after graduating from a U.S. university if they're unable to obtain or renew an H-1B visa or get a green card. The annual cap on H-1B visas is 85,000. That includes 65,000 general H-1B visas and 20,000 H-1Bs set aside for foreigners with advanced degrees. As of Dec. 11, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it had received 62,900 general H-1B visa petitions and reached the cap of 20,000 advanced-degree exemptions for fiscal 2010.

The legislation also would require employers applying for H-1B visas to do more to prove that no U.S. workers are available to fill the positions, Nowrasteh says. And it would bar companies that have recently laid off U.S. workers from engaging in the visa program.

The bill would increase Labor Department workplace inspections and investigations into suspected H-1B fraud and put more regulations on the L-1 visa program, which is also used to bring foreign tech experts to the U.S. on a temporary basis.

The legislation also proposes the creation of an independent federal agency called the Commission on Immigration and Labor Markets that would study market demand for skills covered by various visas, including H-1B visas. And it proposes mandating employers use the now-voluntary government-operated E-Verify system to check whether job applicants can legally work in the U.S.