House GOP Bill Would Boost Visas for Highly Skilled Workers

Continuing the House Republicans’ piecemeal approach to an immigration overhaul, two committee chairmen on Thursday introduced legislation that would expand the number of visas and green cards available to highly skilled foreign workers.

The proposal by Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., and Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., came as a bipartisan House group continued its closed-door negotiations on a broader, comprehensive immigration overhaul, akin to pending Senate legislation (S 744).

Goodlatte and House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, have instead backed an incremental, "step-by-step" strategy on immigration, and the Judiciary Committee held a hearing last week on the first two GOP bills, dealing with agricultural guest workers and employment verification.

The latest bill (HR 2131), introduced Thursday by Goodlatte and Issa, would increase the number of guest visas for highly skilled foreign workers and entrepreneurs, and move 55,000 green cards per year from the diversity lottery program to foreign students who earn advanced degrees from U.S. universities in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, the so-called STEM fields.

"Although high-skilled immigrants are often in demand by American employers, many of them end up on the green-card waiting list for years. Consequently, many of these foreign workers and students go back to their home countries and work for one of our global competitors," Goodlatte said.

"The SKILLS Visa Act provides a solution to this problem by eliminating immigration programs that do not meet the needs of our nation and reallocating those visas to high-skilled immigrants who will help make us more competitive in today’s economy," he added.

The Goodlatte-Issa bill would raise the annual cap on H-1B visas for highly skilled foreign workers from 65,000 to 155,000, while raising the allotment for advanced STEM graduates from 20,000 to 40,000. It would also eliminate the diversity visa lottery program, shifting those 55,000 green cards to STEM graduates, and establish two new green-card programs for foreign entrepreneurs who attract or invest significant capital into a business that employs at least five American workers.

By contrast, the comprehensive immigration bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week would gradually increase the number of H-1B visas from the current cap of 85,000 annually to a maximum of 180,000. It would also call on employers to make a "good-faith effort" to recruit American workers, with stricter requirements placed on companies where more than 15 percent of the skilled workers are foreign.

Labor unions, wary of American workers being undercut, have sought to restrain the growth of the H-1B program. Meanwhile, the proposal from Goodlatte and Issa to repeal the diversity lottery green-card program and the siblings of U.S. citizens green-card program will likely be opposed by congressional Democrats who have strongly supported both initiatives.

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