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Tech Leaders Applaud Immigration Bill's Focus on H-1B Visas, STEM Workers

Leading technology firms and trade groups hailed Tuesday's introduction of bipartisan immigration-reform legislation, praising the provisions in the bill that would expand the number of high-skilled workers eligible to remain in the country, including a special exemption for those trained in fields like technology and engineering.

The Immigration Innovation Act, backed by two senators of each party, is squarely aimed at addressing a shortage of top talent in the high-tech industries.

Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith called the bill "a major step forward."

"It's critical that America address the shortage of workers with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills," Smith said in a company blog post. "There are many high-skilled, high-paying jobs being created by American businesses across the country that are being left unfilled because of this gap. The country's economic and technology leadership are dependent on improving STEM education and implementing broader immigration reform."

The introduction of the Immigration Innovation Act, backed by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), follows an announcement Monday from a group of eight senators, including Rubio, outlining broad principles for comprehensive immigration reform legislation to address high-skilled workers as well as a path to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently residing in the country.

On Tuesday, President Obama addressed the push for immigration reform in a speech in Las Vegas, pointing out that "immigrants helped start businesses like Google and Yahoo."

"Right now, there are brilliant students from all over the world sitting in classrooms at our top universities. They're earning degrees in the fields of the future, like engineering and computer science. But once they finish school, once they earn that diploma, there's a good chance they'll have to leave our country," Obama said.

"Intel was started with the help of an immigrant who studied here and then stayed here. Instagram was started with the help of an immigrant who studied here and then stayed here. Right now in one of those classrooms, there's a student wrestling with how to turn their big idea -- their Intel or Instagram -- into a big business," he added. "We're giving them all the skills they need to figure that out, but then we're going to turn around and tell them to start that business and create those jobs in China or India or Mexico or someplace else? That's not how you grow new industries in America. That's how you give new industries to our competitors. That's why we need comprehensive immigration reform."

Obama said that the framework the group of eight senators unveiled on Monday closely aligns with his own vision for immigration reform, saying that the rapid, bipartisan momentum the issue has garnered early in the new congress bodes well for swift action.

That suggests that provisions of the narrower Immigration Innovation Act could get folded into a more comprehensive reform package, which would certainly address the challenge of retaining high-skilled workers. Late last year, the White House affirmed its commitment to measures that would allow foreign-born students studying STEM subjects to remain in the country and work, but said that the skilled-worker provisions should be part of a larger bill, rather than handled piecemeal.

Many prominent groups within the tech industry rushed to endorse the bill, including TechAmerica, CTIA, the Telecommunications Industry Association and BSA, a leading trade group representing software companies.

"This is outstanding legislation to start off the new Congress," BSA President and CEO Robert Holleyman said in a statement. "By helping the IT sector retain the best and brightest talent, we'll be more productive, and by fueling STEM education in America's schools, we'll have more home-grown talent in the coming years."

The Immigration Innovation Act introduced Tuesday would immediately increase the annual cap on temporary H-1B visas granted to highly skilled foreign workers from 65,000 to 115,000. Additionally, the bill would establish a so-called "H-1B escalator," through which the cap would automatically move up or down, depending on the demands of the labor market.

The bill provides for a tiered set of visa increases that would raise the cap by varying levels, tied to the time it took to reach the quota. For example, if the cap was reached within 45 days from the time petitions for visas could be filed, the quota would automatically increase by 20,000 visas. If it were reached within 60 days, 15,000 new visas would immediately become available. The bill stipulates that the H-1B escalator would top out at 300,000 visas.

Anther provision of the legislation would exempt workers with advanced degrees in STEM subjects from the employment-based green card cap, along with other reforms to improve efficiencies in the green-card system and retain highly skilled workers.

The bill would also channel funds collected through fees for H-1B visas and employment-based green cards to grant programs promoting STEM education and worker retraining that would be administered by the states.

Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.

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