Senators hit snag on tech provisions in U.S. immigration bill

WASHINGTON, May 16 (Reuters) - Amid fierce lobbying from the tech industry and organized labor, senators on Thursday hit a snag over a visa program for high-skilled foreign workers in the U.S. immigration bill and decided to delay action on the issue until next week.

The bill was carefully crafted by a bipartisan group of Senators to address a slew of concerns from interest groups. But the provision has emerged as a sticking point for the business community and could cost the support of a key Republican Senator Orrin Hatch.

Democrat Charles Schumer, one of the gang of eight Senators that hashed out the original bill, has been trying to broker a compromise with Hatch on the H-1B visa program for high skilled workers.

“We are working very hard to negotiate an agreement,” Schumer said at the Senate Judiciary Committee, which held its third session on Thursday to examine the immigration bill.

On behalf of tech firms and businesses, Hatch has introduced amendments to make it easier for companies to hire foreigners. Schumer said he had asked Hatch to defer his amendments “in hopes that we can get an agreement for early next week.”

Under the bill, companies would have to vouch that they were not replacing American workers with foreigners for 90 days before and after the company applied for the work visa. Hatch’s amendment would only require that the employer did not intend to displace a U.S. worker.

Hatch is also seeking to soften requirements designed to ensure that Americans get the first crack at a high-skilled job. Under the bill, employers would first have to advertise the job and offer the position to any qualified American.

Hatch’s amendment would only require employers to take good faith steps to recruit Americans. That requirement would only apply to companies that had more than 15 percent of their workforce on H-1B work visas.

Republican Lindsey Graham, who is part of the gang of eight, said Hatch had some good points. “I know he has been a real leader on this and I hope we can find some common ground,” he told reporters.

Schumer, Graham and other lawmakers are trying to accommodate Hatch in part because they want more Republican senators to support the bill, which would put pressure on the Republican-led House of Representatives to act on immigration reform.

That has angered the AFL-CIO union organization. “It’s not OK to trade workers to get a senator,” said Andrea Zuniga DiBitetto, legislative representative with the labor federation.

DiBitetto did not say whether the AFL would pull its support for the entire bill if Hatch’s amendments were approved.

Influential business groups, which fear the legislation would increase their liability, have held back from endorsing the legislation until their problems with the H-1B program are resolved.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is aiming to complete work on the bill before June.