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Lofgren says 'toxic environment' stalls visa reform

Republicans' visa reforms would eliminate green card diversity lottery

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) isn't giving up on a bill to give green cards to college graduates with advanced degrees in technical fields, but she has been unable to find any Republican backing for it.

Nonetheless, Lofgren intends to continue pushing for her bill, the Immigration Driving Entrepreneurship in America Act of 2011 or the IDEA Act (HR 2161), which would make green cards available to students who earn advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at research universities.

But absent a seismic change in the tenor of the national political discussion, Lofgren, who represents Silicon Valley, offered little in the way of hope for the bill, which she said is broadly backed by key Democratic immigration reformers.

"How do we change the toxic environment that we're in, so that we allow reasonable people to do reasonable things in the best interest in the country?" Lofgren said. Speaking at an industry forum sponsored by the Computer & Communication Industry Association on Thursday, Lofgren said she wasn't out to "castigate" House Republican members nor was she yet offering a post-mortem on her effort. But she didn't offer a path for the bill's approval.

"I couldn't find -- and I spent months asking -- any Republicans willing to support the bill, even those I have worked with in the past," Lofgren said.

Lofgren's bill, which represented the Democrats' major push on tech reform, also has some H-1B reforms, including the elimination of three-year extensions of this visa for "exclusively temporary workers."

U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) introduced a version of Lofgren's bill, the American Innovation and Education Act of 2011 that kept the green card provisions but eliminates most of the other things in Lofgren's bill, including the H-1B provisions. That effort has only five co-sponsors; Lofgren's bill has 24 co-sponsors.

There is also a Republican effort to help the technology industry on green cards called the Security and Fairness Enhancement (SAFE) for America Act (HR 704). Introduced by U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the bill would eliminate the visa lottery program. Each year, a visa lottery is held that provides green cards to as many as 50,000 immigrants.

Goodlatte, speaking at the forum, said his bill was important to the tech community. He said H-1B visa levels "seem to be sustainable for getting someone out of college or bringing someone in from another country who is not a U.S. citizen."

The problem arises when an employee's H-1B visa ends, Goodlatte said. Employers face long wait times to obtain company-sponsored permanent residency for their employees. That wait for a green card could force employees to return to their home countries once the H-1B expires, he said.

The lottery program awards visas based on luck, not on any skills, Goodlatte said. The lottery also excludes people from certain countries, including India and China, from participating. "Those visas are not available to citizens from countries that have the highest demand, where tech companies are hiring, like India and China," Goodlatte said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is [email protected].

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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