WASHINGTON – High-tech firms eager to import more engineers, computer buffs and other skilled workers are waiting anxiously to see if their needs will be met as Congress grapples with overhauling immigration law.
As senators began work Monday on an immigration bill, officials from tech companies, universities and trade groups gathered in a Senate meeting room to tick off some of their top priorities: adding more visas for high-tech workers and making it easier for tech-savvy foreign students to come to the U.S. and stay.
They aren't the issues that have grabbed headlines, like fencing off the U.S.-Mexico border or what to do with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in this country. But high-tech officials say they are essential at a time when the U.S. is creating more technology jobs but producing fewer college and university graduates with engineering degrees.
"I have trouble filling high-tech jobs in remote areas, and even in metropolitan areas finding the right person," said Woody Sessums, a vice president at Cisco Systems, Inc. (CSCO). "We want the very smartest, the most high-level engineers to come here and stay, and we have to compete globally."
Sessums was among the speakers at a Monday forum organized by the University of California Washington Center, the California Institute for Federal Policy Research and TechNet, a high-tech lobby group.
An immigration bill the House passed in December did not contain any of the main provisions high-tech companies are seeking. They are more hopeful about what might come out of the Senate, although the two measures would then have to be reconciled.
Congress capped the six-year H-1B visas at 65,000 per year in 2004, and for the past few years that cap has been met even before the beginning of each fiscal year.
Specter would increase the cap to 115,000, with more increases possible depending on demand.
"We don't have enough homegrown scientists and people who are well-trained in math and science, and what happens is those jobs are offshored or outsourced to places like India and China," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said as the Judiciary Committee debated the issue Monday. "It represents a real challenge to American competitiveness."
Specter's legislation also would change how foreign students are dealt with, creating a new visa for students in science, technology, engineering and math and allowing them to take a job after they graduate and apply for permanent residency. Currently foreign students must pledge to leave the U.S. after completing their studies.
"A lot of that innovation, talent and invention is now pushed to other countries," said Tod Loofbourrow, president and chief executive of Authoria, Inc., a Massachusetts company that focuses on recruitment and work force productivity.
The Judiciary Committee passed Specter's bill Monday and the full Senate was expected to take it up Tuesday.
"Hopefully there's enough support in the Senate for this that we can get this through while they're arguing about the other issues," said Victor Johnson, associate executive director at the Association of International Educators.