House Approves Faster Green Cards For Foreign IT Workers

Senate also expected to approve bill that eliminates per-country visa caps and institutes a first come, first served system.
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The House on Tuesday voted to eliminate per-country caps on employment-based visas, a move that could make it easier for tech workers from highly populated nations like India and China to obtain so-called green cards, which allow individuals to permanently reside and work in the U.S.

The Fairness for High-Skilled Immigration Act (H.R. 3012) drew broad, bi-partisan support, passing the House with a vote of 389-15. The bill is expected to move swiftly through the Senate.

Currently, U.S. immigration law limits employment-based green cards for citizens from any one country to no more than 7% of the total green cards approved by the State Department in any particular year. The rule makes it easier to obtain a green card for applicants from smaller countries that don't generate a significant amount of applications, but makes it tougher for workers from big countries that provide most of the foreign tech workers sought by U.S. companies.

[ Does the visa process need to move faster? Read India Tells U.S.: H-1B Process Too Slow. ]

Individuals from India, the source of most tech industry immigrants to the U.S., often have to wait up to 10 years for a green card due to the per-country cap. The High-Skilled Immigration Act, which was introduced to Congress in September by Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz, aims to correct such imbalances by switching to a first come, first served system for the roughly 140,000 employment-based green cards awarded each year.

"Per country limits make no sense in the context of employment-based visas. Companies view all highly skilled immigrants as the same regardless of where they are from--be it India or Brazil," said Chaffetz, in a statement.

The bill's bipartisan support owes much to the fact that it does nothing to increase the total number of green cards awarded, it simply evens out the process for those looking to emigrate to the U.S. Groups that represent U.S. tech companies applauded its passage through the House.

"The House of Representatives today took a major step forward to address a pressing problem for the technology industry--a lack of access to highly-skilled workers. The 'Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act' addresses half the equation by destroying a barrier for highly-skilled immigrants to bring, and keep, their talents here, benefiting our country's tech industry," said Dan Varroney, acting president and CEO of Tech America, whose members include computing industry giants IBM, HP, and Microsoft.

The other "half" of the equation, according to Varroney, would be a larger percentage of students pursuing STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, degrees at U.S. educational institutions. Until that happens, "the tech industry's immediate need can only be met by allowing technology companies access to the best and the brightest highly-skilled immigrants from around the world."

Some groups that represent U.S.-born IT workers dispute that notion, however. "Experienced IT workers who are over 40 years old have a hard time even getting noticed by companies like Microsoft," said Rennie Sawade, communications director for WashTech, an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America, in a recent interview with InformationWeek. "They're really after the younger, more inexpensive workers."

In addition to eliminating numerical caps on employment-based green cards, the Act would also raise the per-country cap for family-related green cards from 7% of the total to 15%.

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