Tech firms fight hiring rules in immigration bill
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Tech firms fight hiring rules in immigration bill
- Bill provision that would require firms to post jobs for Americans is targeted
- Technology firms have spent millions on lobbying on immigration
- Judiciary Committee set to start working on bill
WASHINGTON – Technology firms, exercising new political clout on Capitol Hill, are lobbying against a measure in the leading Senate immigration bill that would make it harder for them to recruit workers from abroad without first taking steps to hire Americans for highly skilled jobs in programming, engineering and other fields.
The measure, part of a sweeping compromise bill drafted by a bipartisan group of eight senators, would require job openings to be posted on a new government website for 30 days and order companies to first extend job offers to "equally or better qualified" U.S. workers. It would give the U.S. Labor Department the power to review and challenge those hiring decisions.
Proponents say the measures are needed to curb abuses by companies who they say use the visa program to hire cheaper labor. Technology companies say the proposed rules would cripple their ability to hire the best employees from a global workforce and represent inappropriate government intrusion in internal hiring decisions.
The fight over hiring practices is part of the massive lobbying campaign underway on the immigration measure and will offer a fresh test of the technology industry's growing influence in Washington. The companies involved in the computer and Internet sectors spent nearly $140 million in lobbying last year -- more than twice the $69 million the industry poured into influencing Washington a decade earlier, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political spending.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to begin work on the bill Thursday.
The hiring battle centers on the program that grants H-1B visas, which go mostly to college-educated foreigners in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. Technology companies say they face a chronic shortage of qualified workers in these fields. The United States sets an annual limit of 85,000 visas for these companies, and the competition for them is intense: This year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services opened up the application process April 1, and the cap was reached within a week.
Industry groups have made big gains in the Senate's immigration proposal. The bill, for instance, Would increase the H-1B cap to 205,000 annually. However, tech officials warn the new recruiting requirements could drive companies to move their skilled jobs overseas, rather than comply. A commonly cited example: Microsoft's decision to open a software center in Vancouver, British Columbia, after Congress failed to pass immigration legislation in 2007 that would have significantly increased the number of H-1B visas.
Under the bill, "employers are going to have an arbitrary government standard imposed on every hiring decision," said Robert Hoffman, the top lobbyist for the Information Technology Industry Council, a trade group. The proposed rule, he said, ignores subjective factors that influence hiring. "A perfect example: How does one define whether or not someone has the personality to fit into a corporate culture?" he said.
"We are not trying to change any of the fundamental policy goals that they are trying to achieve" in the Senate, Hoffman said. "We are just trying to tweak it, so that these goals and other goals, like retaining the best and brightest and growing in the United States, so that those types of goals are advanced as well."
Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, has criticized the visa program, saying it allows firms to hire "cheap indentured labor."
"The technology industry is asking the government to come in and intervene in the normal functioning of the U.S. labor market, specifically on their behalf," Hira said.
Bruce Morrison, a former Connecticut congressman who lobbies on behalf of a group that represents American engineers, said the organization will object to any effort to "dilute worker protections" as the measure moves through the Senate. "The arguments from the companies is that there aren't any Americans to take these jobs," he said, "so there shouldn't be any problem."
The biggest users of H-1B visas are not brand-name companies, but little-known staffing companies that provide foreign workers on a temporary basis to U.S. companies — including banks, health insurance companies and big retailers. Cognizant, a New Jersey-based company that employs 27,000 people in the USA, is the top user of the temporary visas, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services records show. Most of its workers come from India.
In addition, three India-based outsourcing companies rank among the top five recipients of H-1Bs, according to the federal data.
Americans would "be shocked to know that most of the H-1B visas … are going to outsourcing companies," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., one of eight senators who drafted the immigration bill, said during a recent hearing. "They're going to these firms, largely in India, who are finding workers, engineers, who will work at low wages in the U.S."
Durbin is a driving force behind the hiring requirements in the Senate proposal.
The measure would make business harder for staffing companies dependent on foreign workers. It would impose higher fees on firms that rely on overseas employees for more than 30% of their workforce. Starting in 2016, the bill would bar granting any new temporary visas for foreign workers at companies with more than half their workers on the visas. Both measures apply to companies that employ more than 50 people.
Cognizant spokesman John Procter said he did not have a breakdown on the percentage of the company's workers in the USA on H-1B visas. He said the bill imposes an "arbitrary, detrimental restriction on the number of skilled immigrants."
"It would really change the way America does business," he said. "The company is very focused on educating legislators and making sure this language doesn't make its way into any final outcome."
Cognizant hired its first federal lobbyist in 2010 andby last year, it had spent nearly $1 million on federal lobbying, congressional records show. Its team includes Democratic power broker Heather Podesta, who did not return a telephone call. Other companies also have stepped up their political activity.
Last month, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Netflix's Reed Hastings, Google's Eric Schmidt and other technology executives teamed up to underwrite an advocacy group to promote their views on immigration. Two of its subsidiaries began a seven-figure advertising campaign to shore up voter support for key senators in the immigration debate.
The tech industry "has clearly come of age," said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation. "In the last decade, we've seen this tremendous recognition from Silicon Valley of the need to play in the power circles — to both protect their bottom line and to alter the political scene to their advantage."