A week after the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) announced the formation of a coalition to advocate U.S. immigration reform that would boost the number of highly skilled foreign workers and replenish a U.S. manufacturing sector being crippled by a workforce skills gap, four Senators today, led by Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), introduced a bill in the Senate that would increase the annual number of temporary H-1B work visas by 50,000 to a total of 115,000, as reported by the Salt Lake Tribune.
The bipartisan quartet of senators Hatch, Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Chris Coons (D-Del.) introduced the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013, with Hatch noting that an average 120,000 openings each year for computer scientists are being met by only 40,000 people with legal status. “At least right now there are not enough Americans trained and ready to fill these jobs,” Hatch was quoted as saying in the Tribune report, which noted that the legislation would give legal status to those born in a foreign country and who’ve earned a master’s or doctorate degree in a STEM field.
According to a New York Times article published yesterday, the bill would make an unlimited number of permanent resident cards, or green cards, available for foreigners graduating from American universities with advanced science and technology degrees.
H-1B visas are temporary work permits given to foreign workers in specialty occupations, including but not limited to manufacturing and engineering. The annual cap on these “high-skilled visas” currently stands at 65,000. The fiscal-year 2013 cap was reached last June, and petitions (applications) subsequently submitted were turned back.
The legislation introduced today came just a day after a larger bipartisan group of eight senators released a plan to overhaul the immigration system and intend to push a comprehensive reform bill through the Senate by summer. That group is being led by Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) as well as John McCain (R-Ariz.), and the plan, according to a Las Vegas Sun report, includes a proposal for a high-tech employment verification system.
The smaller bill targeted at skilled labor introduced today is expected to become part of the larger immigration reform package, which is also anticipated to have provisions for “high-skilled green cards.” Rubio, part of the four senators behind the bill, is also part of the larger group of eight lawmakers with the reform plan.
Comprehensive, sweeping immigration reform hasn’t been attempted in Congress in six years, since it failed in 2007, and the road on the Hill for this new plan is not expected to be easy. The subject of immigration remains as complex and impassioned as ever on both sides of the issue. Those who support it say it keeps immigrants, especially high-skilled ones, working at U.S. companies — and thus keeps the United States competitive — instead of being forced to leave the country and end up at a foreign competitor, while those against it argue that a big influx of immigrants and guest workers will take jobs and opportunities away from Americans and undercut wages.
Nevertheless, the urgency now is on plugging the talent crisis in manufacturing and industry, say advocates from the sector like NAM President Jay Timmons, who unveiled the inSPIRE (Supporting Productive Immigration Reform and Education) STEM USA coalition last week. “By reforming the H-1B visa system, manufacturers can fill existing jobs today while strengthening the U.S. STEM education pipeline to ensure that U.S. college graduates are able to fill those jobs tomorrow,” Timmons said upon the launch of inSPIRE STEM USA. This was essentially echoed in statements made by Hatch today.
NAM and Timmons yesterday issued a statement of support for the eight senators’ proposed framework for immigration reform: “Comprehensive immigration reform is good for manufacturers. We are bogged down by a broken system that prevents manufacturers from hiring the best people. Today’s proposal is a strong step forward. Manufacturers believe all ideas should be on the table.”