US senators reach high-tech visa deal

2013-05-22 09:57

kalahari.com

Washington — Leading senators working to resolve a key issue in the first major U.S. immigration legislation in two decades have agreed to a compromise covering expansion of a high-tech visa program, officials said Tuesday, resolving one of two major hurdles to passage in committee.

The deal aimed to resolve the interests of the high-tech industry, which relies increasingly on skilled foreign workers, and organized labor, which represents U.S. workers.

The officials who confirmed the agreement did so on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly ahead of an official announcement.

The legislation would provide an opportunity of U.S. citizenship to millions of immigrants living in the country illegally, create a new visa program for low-skilled workers and permit a sizable increase in the number of high-tech visas, at the same time it mandates new measures to crack down on future unlawful immigration.

Final committee approval is expected by midweek, with the full Senate likely to begin debate next month.

The measure is one of President Barack Obama's top domestic priorities, although the administration has generally let the committee work on its own.

As drafted, the bill would raise the current cap on so-called H-1B visas for highly skilled workers from 65 000 annually to 110 000, with the possibility of a further rise to 180 000. The legislation also included new protections designed to ensure American workers get the first shot at jobs, and high-tech firms objected to some of those constraints.

The deal disclosed Tuesday modifies several amendments Hatch introduced on high-tech visas, including limiting some of the bill's protections for U.S. workers to companies that are more heavily dependent on H-1B visas. That would exclude many major U.S. firms.

However, the AFL-CIO labor federation said it had not agreed to the deal, and it appeared possible that the measure would move forward without the labor union's support for that piece of it.

On the other major remaining unresolved issue, gay marriage, officials said there was a growing if unspoken expectation that the measure would likely emerge from committee without a provision granting same-sex spouses the same access to legal status as heterosexual spouses have.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee, has introduced a proposal to give equal treatment under the bill to same-sex couples, a provision gay rights groups seek.

Two people familiar with the deliberations said the White House had suggested to Leahy that it would be best to put off the controversy until bill goes before the full Senate. The people were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and insisted on anonymity.

All eight authors of the bill, including members of both top political parties, have pledged to maintain the essential outlines of the legislation. A vote to add the gay rights provision could lead to the collapse of Republican support on the Senate floor and the bill's demise.

In addition, the Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling by early July on gay marriage that could render the issue largely moot.

___

Associated Press writers David Espo and Erica Werner and AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.

- AP
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