Two U.S. Republican lawmakers introduced a bill on Thursday that would expand the number of temporary work visas that many tech firms rely on to bring in highly skilled foreign workers.
Every year, companies enter a lottery for a limited number of H-1B visas, which are capped at 65,000. An extra 20,000 visas are set aside for workers with a U.S. master's degree or higher.
Facebook, Google and other tech firms argue that these visas allow them to recruit skilled workers they can't find in the United States. But the program has also drawn criticism from some lawmakers, who worry these visas are being used to displace American workers with cheaper foreign labor.
The Immigration Innovation (or I-Squared) Act would allow up to 195,000 H-1B visas based on demand, according to the legislation. The statutory cap for H-1B visas would also increase from 65,000 to 85,000.
Under the bipartisan bill, workers with U.S. master's degrees or higher, foreign Ph.D.'s, or U.S. STEM bachelor's degrees would be prioritized in the lottery.
"Now more than ever, we need highly qualified workers with the skills employers need to succeed in the information economy," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who introduced the bill, in a statement.
At the same time, he noted, the bill has new sections that address concerns that the H-1B visa program is being used to outsource jobs.
The legislation, which was also introduced by U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, bars employers from hiring an H-1B visa holder with the purpose and intent to replace a U.S. worker.
Among other changes, the bill would also allow spouses and children of H-1B visa holders to legally work in the United States.
The Department of Homeland Security has signaled it plans to rescind a rule that allows spouses of some H-1B visa holders to work in the United States, but tech companies have urged the Trump administration to keep the rule.
The bill would also eliminate the per-country cap on employment-based green cards.
The I-Squared Act, which has failed to pass in previous years, garnered support from tech companies and trade groups on Thursday.
"This important legislation will modernize the H-1B visa and green card programs while also encouraging increased STEM education in the U.S. to train the next generation of U.S. workers in high-growth fields," said Erin Egan, Facebook's vice president of U.S. public policy, in a statement.
Microsoft said in a statement that the bill not only protects American workers, but helps companies recruit highly skilled employees from overseas.
"The tech sector's lifeblood is our employees," said Brad Smith, Microsoft's president and chief legal officer. "Our future -- and the competitiveness of the entire U.S. tech sector -- requires that we recruit some of the best and brightest in the world so they can work closely with employees born and raised in the United States."
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