WASHINGTON Tech industry officials welcomed a bipartisan U.S. Senate immigration bill on Tuesday, saying they hoped it would make it easier to hire highly skilled workers from abroad.
The bipartisan "Gang of Eight" group of senators released highlights of the bill, backed by President Barack Obama, that seeks to reform the immigration system and nearly doubles the quota for H-1B visas for skilled workers.
For months, the tech sector has ratcheted up pressure on the U.S. Congress to make highly skilled immigration rules more flexible, arguing that there are not enough highly skilled American workers to fill its growing number of specialty job openings.
"This really does a lot to address our concerns about being able to hire workers when we need them," Intel Corp (INTC.O) policy director Peter Muller said in an interview on Tuesday. "We're certainly going to be looking into details of this going forward ... but in terms of the big picture, we're very encouraged and pleased."
The bill did not propose raising the number of H-1B visas as high as 300,000, as big tech companies had sought in the past, but it would allow the cap to rise to as high as 180,000 in future years, and sets aside 25,000 such visas for graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math.
Most companies and tech groups, including the new group FWD.us formed by Facebook Inc's (FB.O) Mark Zuckerberg to lobby on the issue, withheld comment awaiting a review of the full text of the bill.
"We're very encouraged that they produced a bill and we see a lot of positives, but we do have some concerns we hope to see worked out," said Dan Turrentine, vice president for government relations at TechNet, a group representing such companies as Google Inc (GOOG.O), Cisco Systems Inc (CSCO.O), Apple Inc (AAPL.O) and Yahoo! Inc (YHOO.O).
Tech companies will be watching several provisions in the bill that risk becoming hindrances to prompt hiring, including new requirements to pay H-1B visa holders higher wages and to recruit American workers prior to hiring foreigners.
Both provisions seek to address the concerns of many workers' groups that oppose raising the number of H-1B visas, saying companies use the visas as a way to hire cheaper workers who lack job mobility.
"We appreciate that the Senate Gang recognizes that serious problems with the H-1B program can be resolved by more STEM green cards, delivered faster," said Marc Apter, president of IEEE-USA, which represents U.S. engineering, computing and technology workers, in a statement.
"In fact, the proposed increases in green cards make H-1B increases unnecessary," Apter said.
The bill is seen as having much more impact on smaller tech firms, particularly so-called "H-1B-dependent" outsourcing companies, than large corporations because it mandates use of the "E-Verify" system, designed to verify legal status, and minimum salary requirements.
Most large companies already run new hires through "E-Verify" and pay foreigners and Americans comparable salaries.
"We think it's very reasonable to add additional requirements to the users of the H-1B visa, but those also have to be workable requirements, so that's something we're going to pay close attention to," said Intel's Muller.
"But we know it's going to be a long process ... and as a starting point, we're really encouraged."
(Additional reporting by Noel Randewich and Sarah McBride in San Francisco; Editing by Fred Barbash and Todd Eastham)