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Washington • Sen. Orrin Hatch warned that tech companies may oppose immigration reform if the Senate Judiciary Committee doesn't change the bill to make it easier to import highly-trained workers from overseas.
The comment came after Sen. Richard Durbin, R-Ill., suggested that Hatch's amendments would allow companies to pass over American workers in favor of immigrants, who may work for less.
Durbin, one of eight senators who crafted the immigration bill, said he found Hatch's suggested changes to H-1B temporary visas "very troubling."
"I hope we can find some common ground, but I hope we start with the premise that when there is a job opening that it is first offered to an American and it is offered at a reasonable wage," he said.
Hatch, R-Utah, shot back: "There is a whole high tech world that is getting up in arms if we don't do this right and they alone can make this bill very difficult to pass, so I hope my colleagues can work with me on this."
Sen. Chuck Schumer, R-N.Y., another member of the "gang of eight" that created the bill, was less antagonistic to Hatch, who is seen as a swing vote on the broader immigration package. He promised to seek a compromise agreement as the committee continued its second day of debate on the legislation.
Hatch agreed to hold off on many of his ideas to continue negotiations, but did push one amendment that the committee accepted on a voice vote.
It doubled a fee employers pay the Labor Department for work-related green cards from $500 to $1000 and sends the bulk of the new revenue to states to allow them to boost education for science, technology, engineering and math, known in the policy world as STEM.
Bipartisan • In presenting the bipartisan idea, Hatch said it was vital to not only increase visas for high-skill workers but also bolster training programs here or face a serious economic problem.
"We can not continue to simply hope that American companies do not move operations to countries where they have better access to individuals who are educated and trained in STEM fields," he said.
Hatch offered the amendments with two Democratic senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Chris Coons of Delaware who have worked closely with him on the issue of highly skilled visas.
"I firmly believe that to lift the economy we need a combination of embracing the best talent from around the world and cultivating the greatest talent from the children who are here," Coons said.
The National Governors Association also supported the amendment, with Ally Isom, the deputy chief of staff to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, calling it "a step in the right direction." Utah has seen an expansion of its high-tech sector in recent years.
The committee also accepted amendments from other senators that would require companies to fully explain a position online when seeking a foreign worker and to create a hotline where Americans could complain if they felt they were inappropriately displaced by an immigrant.
But the panel put off dealing with the years-long political battle over H-1B visas. Durbin and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the top Republican on the committee, have long argued that the program is lightly regulated and often abused by people seeking access to the country.
The bill would place new restrictions on companies to show that they offered a job to American workers before seeking help from people in countries such as China and India.
It would boost the number of available H-1B visas from 65,000 to 110,000 and the number could go up to 180,000 depending on the economy and unemployment rate.
Hatch and supporters like Klobuchar want to bump that number up even more and they want to limit federal requirements to get workers and their spouses into the nation.
"It is not enough to increase the available number of visas," Hatch said. "It means little if the rules and regulations actually discourage their use."
Industry and unions • Hatch has the support of a broad range of business interests from Internet companies such as Facebook to manufacturers like Caterpillar, who complain that there are not enough homegrown workers to fulfill their needs.
On the other side of the debate are unions worried about American jobs and the impact more foreign workers may have on wages.
"We deemed the current language in the bill to be the compromise. After all, high tech got an awful lot of what it wanted, including the visa limit going up nearly threefold," AFL-CIO immigration chief Tom Snyder told the Associated Press. "Now they want to compromise the compromise."
David Kirkham, owner of Kirkham Motors in Utah, said if people are abusing the H-1B visas then Congress should take steps to stop that, but he supported Hatch's attempts to boost the access to foreign workers.
He said he can't find enough workers who can do computer-assisted drafting.
Among Hatch's allies on the committee is Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who has offered his own amendments related to the H-1B provisions but will defer to the state's senior senator to work out a deal.
"This is still the epicenter for the high-tech world and a great place to live," he said. "Bringing those people here will help to ensure our continued dominance in the high-tech world and I think that actually protects American jobs."