Senate set to sniff 'stinky onion' immigration bill

Grassley attacks last-minute H-1B provisions added to Senate immigration bill at the behest of the tech industry.

With his H-1B fight over and lost to the tech industry, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) lashed out in the minutes before the Senate Judiciary Committee's final vote on the controversial immigration bill late last month.

It was late in the day and the committee was moments away from a 16-2 vote to approve 19 pages of industry-sponsored H-1B amendments to the long-awaited bill.

At that point, H-1B critic Grassley found no need for niceties. "Let's peel back the onion and see how much this stinks," he said, and proceeded to attack the legislation across the board. Criticism is likely to grow in the months ahead as the updated H-1B provisions are further analyzed.

Full Senate debate on the bill is slated to begin this month, when more attempts to amend it are expected.

The original bill, drafted by a bipartisan Senate group known as the Gang of Eight, would have raised the base cap on H-1B visas from 65,000 to 110,000, with an escalator that could increase the cap to 180,000 in increments of 10,000 in response to demand. The tech industry sought a cap of at least 300,000.

The revised bill raises the initial cap to 115,000, a small, seemingly spiteful incremental increase.

The annual escalator was increased to 20,000, while the overall cap stays at 180,000. The amended bill blocks escalator increases if unemployment for pertinent jobs is 4.5% or higher.

"Did the supporters of the amendment know that the average unemployment [rate] for this group was 3.7% last April?" said Grassley. "This does nothing to stop huge increases in H-1B visas."

The late amendments would also require that H-1B hiring companies post jobs on a government-sponsored website. However, only so-called "dependent firms" -- those where 15% or more of the employees are on visas -- must offer jobs to equally or better qualified U.S. workers.

That amendment "cancels out the only possibly real and tangible protection that U.S. workers would have gotten," said Daniel Costa, an analyst at the Economic Policy Institute.

Costa contends that the new formula will cause the H-1B cap to rise much faster than the initial plan.

Ron Hira, a public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology who researches H-1B issues, called the final bill "a huge step backward for American workers."

IEEE-USA President Marc Apter was also critical.

"This will allow large multinational technology companies to replace American workers with lower-cost H-1B employees," Apter said in a statement. "It would be nice if Congress would look out for its citizens rather than the profit-driven interests of employers."

The industry amendments were sought by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and were included in the final bill as a result of a compromise with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the Gang of Eight.

Schumer contended that the revised wage requirements would prevent employers from using H-1B visa holders as cheap labor, and would allow unhappy visa holders to more easily leave a company.

Republican lawmakers in the House, meanwhile, have released a plan of their own. The so-called Skills Visa Act would raise the base H-1B cap to 155,000 and increase the number of visas set aside for foreigners who earned advanced degrees at U.S. universities from 20,000 to 40,000.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on

Read more about government/industries in Computerworld's Government/Industries Topic Center.

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