President Barack Obama plans to make the H-1B system "more efficient" through executive action, a move that's drawing negative reaction from Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa).
Grassley is in line to be chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee if Republicans take control of the Senate after next month's mid-term elections.
Grassley wants Obama to focus on protecting U.S. workers, and says firms should be required to attest that they aren't displacing or replacing U.S. workers with foreign workers. H-1B visa-using companies aren't required to first offer a job to a U.S. worker.
Obama made his remarks about immigration on Thursday, the same day Grassley released his letter.
"Many high tech companies have long argued that they need more skilled workers from abroad, when in reality many of these companies have laid off mass numbers of individuals," wrote Grassley.
"All employers, not just some, should be required to offer the job to a U.S. worker who is equally or better qualified," wrote Grassley. "Acting unilaterally for some businesses without providing protections for U.S. workers would be detrimental to the future of our workforce."
Obama, in the absence of action by Congress on immigration reform, is promising to use his executive authority to reform some aspects of the immigration system.
While Grassley is being specific about what he wants, the president has said little about his plans. He did, however, offer an indication of his direction at a fundraiser Thursday at the home of actress Gwyneth Paltrow in Los Angeles.
When asked about immigration at the event, Obama said, in part, according to a White House transcript:
"...What I've committed to is, is that assuming Congress does not act, I will use all the executive authority that I legally have in order to make fixes in some of the system. And that includes potentially making the H-1B system that is often used by tech companies and some of the other elements of our legal immigration system more efficient, so we can encourage more folks to stay here," said Obama.
Obama's plan to make the H-1B system "more efficient, so we can encourage more folks to stay here," may be more about green card reforms than the H-1B program itself.
Obama can't raise H-1B caps, but he might be able to change the green card system in a way to shorten the amount of time needed for an H-1B visa holder to get a green card.
H-1B holders can sometimes wait years for one of the 140,000 employment-based green cards. But only half of those green cards are available to workers; the others are set aside for dependents. It's been argued that Obama may use his authority to treat dependents separately to ensure that all the employment-based green cards are set aside for the workers.
Russ Harrison, director of government relations at the IEEE-USA, said the president's remarks shows "clearly, that there will be a high-skill component" to the planned reforms. Those change are expected in December -- after the elections -- which Harrison called a hopeful sign.
The IEEE has supported improvements to the green card system, and favors permanent immigration over increasing temporary workers. "The president can't make the H-1B visa program more 'efficient' because you can't be efficiently temporary," said Harrison.
Instead, Obama was referring to the entire process used to let skilled workers stay in this country; Harrison said the best way to accomplish that is to speed up the process used to turn foreign students into U.S. citizens.