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How many skilled workers is too many?

US tech firms want to change visa rules so they can hire more workers from abroad.

An employee of Art+Com Technology GmbH demonstrates the "Touchmaster" at a stand for the world's biggest IT fair, CeBIT, in Hanover, March 1, 2009. Tech firms say the U.S. will fall behind other countries if quotas on visas for skilled workers are not raised. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

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 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.