Senators propose work visa expansion

Kyung M. Song / The Seattle Times /

Published Jan 30, 2013 at 04:00AM

WASHINGTON — A group of Senate Republicans and Democrats on Tuesday proposed to dramatically raise the number of high-skilled foreign workers admitted to the United States each year, an expansion that goes beyond what Microsoft and other technology companies have been seeking.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and three others are proposing to immediately raise the current quota of 65,000 H-1B visas to 115,000. The cap would climb in steps, depending on demand, as high as 300,000 annually.

In addition, they would eliminate a separate cap on visas for foreigners with master’s degrees or higher, currently set at 20,000. Spouses of H-1B visa holders would be allowed to hold jobs for the first time. Also, unused green cards for permanent residency would be freed up for foreigners with science and technology skills.

The legislation is sure to lay in stark relief the tension between employers seeking to fill high-tech vacancies and unemployed Americans who believe they can fill those jobs.

The bill drew swift rebuke from groups representing programmers and engineers as well as critics of the visa program. They appeared taken aback by the bill’s expansive scope.

“This is a terrible bill for American technology workers and students. It greatly expands a deeply flawed guest-worker program that takes away job opportunities from American workers and undercuts their wages,” said Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology and an expert on H-1B visas.