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GOP seeks to help high-tech firms with visas

Obama holds town hall meeting at LinkedIn, Republicans do the same at Facebook

WASHINGTON -- House Republican leaders and President Barack Obama were each holding town hall style meetings today in Silicon Valley to talk about the economy.

Obama, who went first, talked generally about his jobs bill and took questions from at least two people who worked in IT. Most of the questions were general, and did not hit on the specific hot button issues of tech policy.

Republican leaders geared up for their own town hall , which is slated to start at 6 p.m. ET at Facebook's Silicon Valley headquarters. The GOP session comes on the heels of the introduction Friday of a bill by U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, (R-Utah), and Lamar Smith, (R-Texas), that would eliminate the per-country limits on employment-based visas.

The federal government limits the overall number of employment-based green cards to 140,000 a year and restricts the number of green cards per country to no more than 7% of the available visas.

In nations where the demand for employment-based green cards is the highest -- China and India, in particular -- it has meant waits of five years or longer for a visa. The Chaffetz/Smith bill would eliminate that 7% restriction, effectively reducing the wait times for workers from India and China. But it could lengthen the wait for green card seekers from other countries by creating a first come, first served global visa system.

The per-country limit, according to the U.S. State Department, "serves to avoid monopolization of virtually all the annual limitation by applicants from only a few countries."

This is far from the first time such a proposal has surfaced. In 2008, U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, (D-Calif.), and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, (R-Va.), co-sponsored a similar bill. But Smith is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which has oversight over immigration. That puts this bill in a good position to advance.

Lofgren has been leading an effort to get a broader set of reforms that would affect green cards and H-1B visas, but Republicans have shown no signs of backing that proposal.

Chaffetz, in a statement, said that the legislation is supported by a coalition of high-tech companies that includes Microsoft, Google and Oracle.

Michael Wildes, a managing partner at Wildes & Weinberg PC, an immigration law firm, said there are multiple ways for people to qualify for status. As a result, the proposal to eliminate the per-country cap "really doesn't have a significant effect."

On the Facebook town hall will be Rep. Eric Cantor, (R-Va), the House majority leader; Kevin McCarthy, (R-Calif.), the majority whip; and Paul Ryan, (R-Wisc.), the House budget committee chairman. Joining them will be Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook.

Among those who asked questions of Obama was Robert Hawley of Charlotte, N.C., who told president that he has had a 22-year career in IT management, "but I find myself displaced."

Hawley, citing an unemployment rate of 16.7% for African Americans, asked the President about high unemployment "not just for African Americans, but also for other groups that are also suffering. What would be your statement of encouragement for those who are looking for work today?"

Obama told Hawley that "given your track record, given your history, seeing you stand here before this group - you're going to be successful. You got a leg up on a lot of folks, you got skills, you got experience ... Right now, your challenge is - not you - it's the economy as a whole."

Obama talked about the things government can do, such as job training and unemployment aid. "My job is to work with everybody I can," he said, "to see if we can speed up the process of healing and the process of recovery."

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] .

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