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Klobuchar looks to increase visas as part of immigration reform

WASHINGTON —Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s bill would greatly increase the number of visas for high-skilled immigrant workers.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
klobuchar.senate.govSen. Amy Klobuchar

WASHINGTON — The comprehensive immigration reform plan pitched by a bipartisan group of senators on Monday consisted more of guidelines than actual policy proposals, but at least one potential component of the plan has already been written, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar and others plan to introduce it sometime today.

Klobuchar’s bill — written with Republicans Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Marco Rubio (Florida) and Democrat Chris Coons (Delaware) — deals with one subset of immigration reform: finding a way to attract highly skilled immigrants to the United States and retaining them once here. The bill would do this by greatly expanding the number of temporary work visas the government can distribute and opening more doors to permanent citizenship for those workers.

“We have been literally shutting our doors, training our competition’s students to come over here and study,” Klobuchar said, “and then we literally send them back to India to start the next Google, instead of allowing them to invent things here.”

Bumping up visa numbers

Under current law, the government can issue so-called “H-1B visas” to only about 85,000 new workers a year (65,000 to highly trained workers in the private sector, another 20,000 to workers with advanced graduate degrees from American universities, and an unlimited but small number issued to workers at academic and research institutions). Most years, demand greatly outpaces supply; the government processed just fewer than 350,000 such requests last year.

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In response, Klobuchar’s bill would:

  • Increase the cap from 65,000 to 115,000;
  • Remove the cap on visas given to workers with graduate degrees;
  • And use a sliding scale to adjust the total number of visas offered (up to 300,000) depending on overall demand.

The bill is likely to drop today, Jan. 29, the same day President Obama speaks about immigration reform proposals in a Las Vegas speech. A bipartisan group of eight senators laid out the principles of their immigration plan on Monday, centering on a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers in the country now, as long as the federal government works to secure its borders. The group said legislation will come sometime in March.

Klobuchar said she expects her bill will be incorporated into a final immigration reform package.

Huge demand

The H-1B program has been around since 1990, and demand has exceeded supply every year except the first few years of the 2000s, when the cap was temporarily increased to 195,000 following the dot-com boom (and subsequent bust).

Companies request the visas on behalf of their employees. The visas last six years and are renewable annually after that if workers, supported by their company, look to continue their search for full American citizenship. (Klobuchar’s bill also increases the number of “green cards” available to these workers).

Depending on the state of the economy, the program can be hugely popular. The government takes applications on a first-come, first-serve basis every April, and spots tend to fill up quickly, Metropolitan Policy Program senior analyst and associate fellow Neil Ruiz said. In 2008, visa spots filled up on the first day they were available.

Technology industries are especially keen on the program, with about 60 percent of visas going to computer or engineering workers. Twin Cities-area companies requested an average of about 4,200 H-1B visas over the last two years, according to a Brookings Foundation report. More than 2,700 of those were for computer-related jobs.

“It’s really the program that’s used to recruit and retain high-skill workers,” Ruiz said.  

Companies that employ H-1B workers have long advocated an increase in visas. Klobuchar said she talked to 3M while crafting the bill, and Microsoft (which alone accounted for 1 percent of all H-1B visas between 2010 and 2011) called for more visas and green cards for specially-trained workers last fall.

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The bill incorporated part of what Microsoft was calling for, increasing the fees companies pay to get these visas by about $1,000, Klobuchar said. The measure would generate about $300 million a year, which would funnel down to state science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs meant to train a homegrown workforce.

“We have a long history in our country of getting talent from other places,” Klobuchar said. “They come here, they live here, they raise their families and they start businesses and they come up with ideas and they fix things, and employ people, and that’s what we need again in this country.”

Devin Henry can be reached at dhenry@minnpost.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry