How many skilled workers is too many?

SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. technology lobby is hoping lawmakers will soon tackle an immigration overhaul that would include measures to make it easier for tech firms to hire talent from abroad.

Tech firms want it to be easier to hire college-educated workers from abroad and also want to reform the green card process to make it easier to convert the temporary visa holders they hire into permanent residents.

The H-1B visa program allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations but caps the number of workers who can obtain these visas.

Tech interests argue that the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union all have more favorable rules on the entry of skilled foreign workers, putting the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage.

“We have catching up to do,” said attorney Bo Cooper, a former senior official in the U.S. immigration bureaucracy and now an adviser to Compete America, a lobby of high-tech and business interests. “Other countries have realized that it's in the national interest to bring talented people into your economy.”

The H-1B program has long been dogged by complaints that imported tech workers take jobs from domestic engineers. There have also been reports of high tech migrants being abused by companies that sponsor their employment visas.

During the Clinton era, when tech was booming and unemployment was low, Congress twice passed bills authorizing temporary increases in the number of H-1B visa holders that U.S. firms could hire.

By the time those increases expired under the Bush administration, the dot.com bubble had burst and tech employment had softened. Lawmakers decided that any immigration bill had to address an entire range of issues including undocumented immigration and not just the tech interest in skilled workers.

After a comprehensive immigration reform proposal died in U.S. Senate two years ago, the tech agenda entered a dormant period. Some hope was rekindled when President Barack Obama mentioned immigration reform in April and June, although he focused on the undocumented issue.

Compete America recently issued a press release noting that applications for basic H-1B visas had not reached the annual quota of 65,000, as it had in past years when the economy was stronger — evidence, the group said, that the market regulates demand and that a numerical cap is unnecessary.

That assertion was greeted with derision by John Miano, a board member of the Programmers Guild, an organization of U.S. tech workers that says most H-1B visas are issued to foreign workers with bachelor's degrees who are not exceptionally skilled and who undercut U.S. wages.

Miano said the unemployment rate for architects and engineers, who are grouped together by the Labor Department, is now in the 9 percent range, much higher than is typical for such professionals.

“The tech lobby is bragging there were only 46,000 H-1B visa applications,” he said. “We've got so many engineers out of work it should have been zero.”

These pro and con arguments could be moot if the health care debate derails Congress from taking up immigration. What hope does exist lies in the cooperation of Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who have been trying to fashion the broad outlines of an agreement on immigration.

Meanwhile, the H-1B program has recently come under renewed attack on two fronts.

Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley this month demanded that U.S. immigration authorities do a better job of policing the program “so that foreign workers are not flooding the market, depressing wages and taking jobs from qualified Americans.”

On the flip side, a Business Week cover story titled, “America's High-Tech Sweat Shops,” focused on consulting firms that sponsor visa applicants with the promise of placing them in good tech jobs but fail to deliver and end up soaking applicants with fees.

The tech constituency with the biggest personal stake in immigration reform is the growing community of engineers who came to the United States from India under H-1B visas, applied for permanent residency and now face long waits for green cards under present rules.

Aman Kapoor, a private tech entrepreneur in Florida and co-founder of Immigration Voice, an organization that wants green card rules changed to help skilled workers, said he would like to see immigration reforms favoring his members, but thinks the long-term competitiveness of the U.S. economy hinges on improving access to education rather than on stop-gap measures like importing talent.

“The bigger policy debate is what the U.S. education system should be like,” Kapoor said. “Will the next generation have better skills? That's how you make a nation more competitive.”