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Immigration Reform Bill Is Dead, But H-1B Visa Debate Lives On

Industry leaders express frustration that Senate action on the immigration bill has once again stalled.
It looks like nothing will change anytime soon with the annual cap or regulations related to H-1B or L-1 visas, the temporary visas most commonly used to bring foreign-born tech workers into the United States. Or will it?

The U.S. Senate on Thursday morning failed to pass a motion that would've ended debate and allowed its comprehensive immigration reform legislation to move forward. This is the second time in about a month that the bill has failed to get enough votes to move forward.

Washington, D.C., insiders say it's unlikely that legislators will try to revive the controversial bill another time before the presidential elections in 2008.

Software & Information Industry Association president Ken Wasch said he was "profoundly disappointed" that Senate action on the immigration bill has once again stalled.

"Without this action, America's high-tech industry will be challenged to find the skilled workers it needs and therefore put at a significant disadvantage to its global competitors," Wasch said.

But while comprehensive immigration reform looks dead for now, some H-1B proponents and opponents still hold out hope that their standalone bills that have been introduced in recent months will resurface -- including bills that raise the cap and others that aim to crack down on H-1B employers.

The comprehensive immigration bill and its amendments included provisions to raise the current H-1B cap of 85,000 (which includes 65,000 visas plus and additional 20,000 visa exemptions for foreign students with advanced degrees from U.S. schools) to more than 115,000 and up to 180,000 annually.

However, that bill also featured anti-fraud and anti-abuse provisions that aimed to make it tougher for employers to skirt hiring Americans for IT positions. Some large U.S.-based companies, including Oracle and Microsoft, had complained that those provisions would've unduly punished employers already playing by current rules.

Max Gleischman, an immigration policy adviser to Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said that a standalone bipartisan H-1B and L-1 anti-fraud bill introduced in April by Durbin and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is "still in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which could bring the bill up again."

Meanwhile, technology vendors, which have been lobbying Washington policy makers for several years to raise the H-1B cap, say not all hope is dead on their side either.

Several bipartisan bills introduced in recent months, including the SKIL bill, to raise the cap are also still potential relief for employers who say they are finding it hard to hire tech talent with very specific degrees and talent.

"As long as Congress is in session and there's a light on in Washington, we'll be making the our concerns for skilled worker relief known," said Robert Hoffman, VP for government affairs at Oracle and co-chair of Compete America, a coalition of tech companies and educators pushing for employer-based immigration reforms, including raising the H-1B cap.

"We're not putting a stop clock on ourselves," Hoffman said.

Even if a standalone bill raising the H-1B cap is unlikely to move forward before the presidential election in November 2008, it's possible the cap could be raised as part of an appropriations bill by the end of this year, said Hoffman. That's what happened in 2004 when Congress created the H-1B exemption for 20,000 foreign students who get advanced degrees from U.S. universities, he said.

"And that happened just before a presidential election, too," he said.

"I think it is too early to tell what will happen," said Ron Hira, assistant professor of public policy on leave from Rochester Institute of Technology and research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, in an e-mail interview with InformationWeek.

"The high-skill immigration system is obviously broken and needs to be fixed," said Hira, who opposed raising the H-1B cap. "No interest group is satisfied with the current system so there will be pressure from multiple sides for some change."

Said Hira: "There are plenty of standalone bills that have been introduced -- they don't need to be reintroduced. The question is whether Congress wants to take them up and put them on the agenda."