A bipartisan Senate bill aiming to increase the number of high-skilled visas doled out by the federal government is running up against Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
During a hearing Tuesday, Grassley made it clear that he believes the bill sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), which has high-profile co-sponsors including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), “only makes the problem worse.”
“It doesn’t close the loopholes or prevent abuse. It doesn’t make sure that American workers are put before foreign workers,” Grassley said, adding that the system was originally meant to be complementary. “It only increases the supply of cheaper foreign labor.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), one of the most vocal opponents of comprehensive immigration reform, also said the visa program is being abused to a “huge degree.”
The technology industry has a large stake in the battle and has supported an increase in the cap. The majority of those high-skilled visas — known as H-1B visas — go to people working in the computer industry.
“It’s a false choice that we can’t protect American workers and create a better system that allows American companies to get access to the best talent in the world,” said Todd Schulte in a statement, the president of FWD.us, an immigration advocacy group founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Nine senators have sponsored Hatch’s bill, which would raise the cap on H-1B visas from 65,000 to 115,000 and allow that number to increase based on the economic climate.
While not a co-sponsor, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said he is encouraged by the proposal and said sending foreign students home after graduation “strikes me as foolish.”
“I thought that we agreed that legal immigration is a good thing,” he said, noting that he supported cracking down on abuse.
But Grassley is pushing his own changes. He specifically wants language that would require U.S. companies to try and recruit American workers before using the visa program. He also wants more oversight and random audits of companies who use the program.
“I find it ironic, thought, that the same folks who fought the immigration reform last Congress are now arguing that our immigrant laws, particularly, as they relate to high-skilled workers are broken and encourage abuse,” Hatch said. “You can’t have it both ways.”
He also wants to close loopholes, highlighted by a California electric company.
Grassley, Sessions and other critics have recently focused their ire on Southern California Edison, which is accused of cutting hundreds of IT jobs in the United States and sending them overseas. Lawmakers have also accused the company of using the H-1B visa program to refill some of those jobs with contract workers in the country.
The company has noted that the H-1B visa program requires those visa holders to be paid comparable wages and benefits as U.S. workers, a provision meant to remove the economic incentive to hire cheaper foreign workers. But critics argue the company is able to skirt the requirement in practice.
Advocates of the program argue that critics are attempting to use a few bad actors to broadly paint the entire system in a negative light.
Much of the hearing was made up of a debate about facts, including whether there is a shortage of high-skilled workers in the United States and whether visa holders are being paid less than their American counterparts in practice.
Democrats on the committee reiterated their call for comprehensive immigration reform, an unlikely prospect now that Republicans control both chambers.
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who testified Tuesday, said it would be “difficult to get things done” on the immigration front without comprehensive reform. His group supported a comprehensive Senate bill in 2013 but opposes the stand-alone plan to increase the cap for high-skilled workers.