If immigration reform is dead, so is raising the H-1B cap

Passing comprehensive immigration reform legislation -- which is closely linked to the H-1B cap -- is unlikely

In a speech Wednesday on the floor of the U.S. House, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) declared immigration reform dead.

He chastised and baited Republicans in Congress for blocking reform, and declared that winning the White House without the support of a growing Hispanic population will become mathematically impossible. "The Republican Presidential nominee, whoever he or she may be, will enter the race with an electoral college deficit they cannot make up," said Gutierrez.

Gutierrez didn't mention the H-1B visa in the speech, but if he's right, and comprehensive immigration reform is indeed dead, so is raising the cap on H-1B visas.

Immigration reform advocates have successfully blocked any effort to take up the immigration issue piecemeal. They don't want support for broader reform to peel away.

For the next few weeks, the tech industry and other supporters of such legislation will continue to push ahead on immigration reform.

While tech lobbyists agree that the odds of passing immigration legislation are slim and shrinking, they still aren't ruling it out. So far, it's been mostly the Democrats who are declaring immigration dead. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has yet to say so definitively.

There really isn't that much time left.

The long August recess will soon be here, and post-recess lawmakers will be spending a lot time in their districts campaigning for reelection. It's not too early to start thinking about what the next Congress might do, and if the Republicans take control of the Senate, the tech industry will face a new obstacle: Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Grassley is the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the immigration issue. He is the leading critic of the H-1B program in Congress, and in line to be the committee chairman in a Republican victory. "The H-1B program is so popular that it's now replacing the U.S. labor force," he said in 2007.

Grassley has been a consistent critic of the H-1B program. One year ago this week, the Senate passed its bipartisan immigration bill that would more than double the H-1B cap, increasing it from 85,000 to 180,000 annually. "Let's peel back the onion and see how much this stinks," said Grassley, as his efforts to add H-1B restrictions to the bill failed.

Grassley offered multiple amendments to the Senate immigration bill in an attempt to lessen the need for the H-1B visas. One amendment required a "good faith" effort to fill a job with a U.S. worker before offering it to an H-1B worker. That failed after industry opposition, as did another Grassley amendment intended to protect women.

Karen Panetta, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Tufts University, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee for the IEEE, an organization of technical professionals, about the H-1B visa. She said the IEE estimates that 80% of the visa holders are male.

Citing Panetta's testimony, Grassley introduced an amendment to ensure that women are not displaced by foreign workers 180 days before and after the H-1B worker is hired. He has sought to limit the number of H-1B workers any company can have to 50% of their U.S. workforce.

The willingness of Republican House lawmakers to bring up immigration reform in the time remaining before the election may have been hurt by the recent primary loss of their majority leader, Eric Cantor (R-Va.)

David Brat, who ousted Rep. Eric Cantor, the majority leader in a Virginia primary, attacked Cantor's support for the H-1B visa, calling it "high-skilled cheap labor."

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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