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5:43 pm
Tue May 21, 2013

Tech Companies Have A Lot At Stake With Immigration Bill

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The immigration bill that's working its way through the Senate gives the tech industry something it has long asked for: more visas for skilled workers from overseas. But the original bill also came with something the tech industry didn't like: rules to keep those foreign workers from taking the jobs of Americans. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, key senators agreed to loosen those rules.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Silicon Valley's frontman on this issue has been Republican Senator Orrin Hatch. Over the last few days, he's been negotiating behind the scenes with Democrats Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin, two of the so-called Gang of Eight senators who launched the immigration bill. Here's Hatch last Thursday making it clear that they'd need to give in more to the tech industry to get his support on the overall immigration bill.

SENATOR ORRIN HATCH: We're close to an agreement now, and a lot depends on, you know, how badly they want me.

(LAUGHTER)

KASTE: Hatch's efforts paid off today as the Judiciary Committee voted to scale back the rules governing how companies may use temporary skilled workers from overseas, workers with the so-called H-1B visas. Under the new deal, companies will have to recruit Americans before importing foreigners, but they won't have to hire those Americans. Also, fewer companies will have to show that they're not using the H-1B visas to replace American workers. Hatch says the more restrictive rules were bad for the tech industry.

HATCH: High-tech companies will be forced to go overseas. They'll be forced to have to go there to get the help that they need.

BRUCE MORRISON: The tech industry has got used to their farm team model.

KASTE: Bruce Morrison is a former Congressman who now represents the IEEE-USA, an organization of electronics workers. He says tech companies like the H-1B visas because those workers are more malleable.

MORRISON: With Americans, they have to treat Americans right from day one in order to keep them on the job. Here, they are getting an assist from the government in making the people stay on the job while they decide whether to sponsor them for a green card.

KASTE: But H-1B workers may be less vulnerable under the Hatch amendment, which would allow them to switch employers during their stay. And the overall bill also increases access to green cards, that is, permanent residency. In fact, the bill is sure to increase the total number of foreign tech workers in the U.S. Just one doubt really remains: Will that be a good thing for American tech workers?

ANA AVENDANO: We've moved beyond that question.

KASTE: Ana Avendano, who's been negotiating on the Hill for the AFL-CIO, says American tech workers have legitimate worries about the effect the foreign workers will have on wages and job opportunities.

AVENDANO: So those are really important public policy questions. They're just not the ones that we're dealing with right now because we're dealing with this much larger issue of trying to get this mammoth bill across the finish line.

KASTE: A bill whose core is still the path to citizenship for millions of people living in the U.S. illegally. Supporters of that cause are very eager to keep the tech industry on their side. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.