A hearing earlier this week on high-skilled immigration was more entrenchment than detente as members of the Senate Judiciary Committee dug in on their existing positions on high-skilled immigration.

Billed as a hearing on immigration reforms needed to protect skilled American workers, the committee focused mainly on the H-1B and L-1 nonimmigrant visa classifications as well as Optional Practical Training. The hearing was punctuated by several opposing viewpoints – expressed through competing legislative preferences – on the best path to reform the high-skilled immigration system.

The tone was set by committee chair Sen. Chuck Grassley, R- Iowa, a regular critic of the H-1B program who has long called for tighter requirements and more oversight. Grassley continued to tout legislation that he authored with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., several years ago as the answer to increasing worker protections and reforming the H-1B program. That bill contained many new employer requirements and has never gained much traction in Congress despite being introduced multiple times since its initial presentation in 2007. The legislation was most recently renewed in 2013, but a fresh bill has not been introduced in the current session of Congress.

Democratic members, on the other hand, pushed comprehensive immigration reform as the solution to high-skilled labor. Led by ranking member Patrick Leahy, D- Vt., they pointed to the nonimmigrant measures in last year’s Gang of Eight Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill as the way to tackle problems with the H-1B and L-1 visa programs.

The committee also placed a significant amount of attention on a current bill that focuses on increasing the number of H-1B visas and other changes. The Immigration Innovation (I-Squared) Act of 2015, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would raise the annual cap on H-1B visas and eliminate the green card backlog for most employment-based immigrants, both measures that are generally viewed very favorably by employers of high-skilled technology workers. However, the Senate GOP seems divided on the bipartisan legislation, with Grassley and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., publicly voicing their opposition.

While much of the hearing centered on existing ideas and legislative measures, the committee explored some new ideas as well. Grassley suggested the possibility of giving priority to U.S. companies during the H-1B petition process, while Durbin floated the idea of setting entirely different rules for companies whose workforce is heavily reliant on H-1B workers, as opposed to the current practice where they are only subject to additional fees.

BAL Analysis: Unfortunately, this hearing mainly highlighted the deep divisions among members of the committee with regard to high-skilled immigration. Much of the time was spent discussing whether American workers are negatively impacted by high-skilled workers as opposed to offering concrete reform solutions. The committee nevertheless appeared to agree that businesses do need the ability to get highly skilled foreign workers to the U.S. more effectively, although members are finding it difficult to agree on how to achieve that goal. It appears that existing high-skilled immigration legislation will likely need to draw even more support before it can move forward in the Senate.

BAL is monitoring all legislative developments in Congress and will continue to provide updates as additional information becomes available. For more frequent updates and news, follow us on our BAL Government Affairs Twitter page.

For additional information and/or questions:

Lynden Melmed, Partner
Washington D.C.
Direct 202.842.5830

Christiana Kern, Legislative Analyst
Direct 202.842.5831

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