New legislation introduced by a bipartisan group of 10 U.S. senators would nearly double the number of H-1B visas that companies can get each year to hire foreign high-skill workers, including technology employees.
The Immigration Innovation Act would increase the number of H-1B visas available to U.S. companies from 65,000 a year to 115,000 a year, and would establish an economy-based escalator, allowing the number of H-1Bs to expand or contract, depending on market conditions. The top number of visas allowed would be 300,000 per year.
The bill, introduced Tuesday, won praise from several tech firms and trade groups, including Microsoft, TechAmerica, CTIA and the Computer and Communications Industry Association.
"Meaningful immigration reform is essential to our country's technology sector employers' ability to out-innovate our competitors in the global marketplace, and for the U.S. economy to benefit from access to the cutting-edge talents of highly skilled, foreign-born individuals, many of whom are currently being educated in U.S. colleges and universities," Kevin Richards, TechAmerica's senior vice president for federal government relations, wrote in a letter to the bill's sponsors.
The current limits on H-1Bs are "arbitrary restrictions" that prevent U.S. companies from tapping the full potential of foreign workers, Richards added.
The bill -- with sponsors including Senators Orrin Hatch of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida, both Republicans, and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Chris Coons of Delaware, both Democrats -- would also allow the H-1B cap to increase if the cap is hit before the end of the year. It would allow foreign students studying at U.S. colleges to apply for permanent residence, and it would exempt technology and science workers from green card caps.
"This bill is a common sense approach to ensuring that those who have come here to be educated in high-tech fields have the ability to stay here with their families and contribute to the economy and our society," Hatch said in a statement. "It's a market-driven path forward to fulfilling a need in our immigration system and growing the economy. It's good for workers, good for businesses trying to grow, and good for our economy."
The legislation would also use fees from H-1B and green card applications to fund a grant program to promote science and technology education and working retraining programs.
The bill would also eliminate the annual 20,000 cap on H-1B visas for advanced degree holders.
The legislation, however, does nothing to close loopholes in the H-1B program, said Ron Hira, a public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a longtime critic of the visa program.
"This is a terrible bill for American technology workers and students," Hira said in an email. "It greatly expands a deeply flawed guest worker program that takes away job opportunities from American workers and undercuts their wages."
There's nothing to recommend in the bill, he added. "Given that employers can pay H-1Bs less than American workers and they never have to look for available American workers before hiring an H-1B, expect the cap to be hit every year," he said.
The bill is bad for U.S. students, tech workers and entrepreneurs, said Jeffrey Oleander, a former systems analyst and software engineer living in Florida. "It worsens the flood of cheap, young, pliant foreign labor ... while at the same time draining potential sources of investment," he said in an email.
Oleander called on Congress to cap H-1B visas at 15,000 a year "until we reach full employment" in science and technology fields.
During a speech in Las Vegas, Obama noted that immigrants helped found Google, Yahoo, Intel and Instagram. He called for Congress to create a way for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. to become citizens and to help foreign college students studying engineering and computer science stay in the U.S. after they graduate.
The "time has come" for comprehensive immigration reform, Obama said.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is email@example.com.