By Caren Bohan and Rachelle Younglai
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A rift emerged between U.S. business groups and organized labor over a high-skilled worker program in the Senate immigration bill, as the tech industry and other firms on Monday pushed to make it easier for companies to hire people from abroad.
On the eve of a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a broad coalition of business groups wrote to the panel urging changes to the visa program known as H-1B.
The bipartisan Senate immigration bill would raise the cap on the number of high-skilled workers to at least 110,000 from a current limit of 65,000. In future years, the cap could rise as high as 180,000 depending on labor-market conditions.
In the letter signed by the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and major technology lobbying organizations, the groups welcomed the increase in the size of the high-skilled worker program and but said they wanted some changes to some of the program requirements.
The changes, the letter said, would help avoid, "unintended consequences," that could run counter to the goal of encouraging innovation.
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah has proposed several amendments to the high-skilled visa program, including a softening of the requirements designed to ensure that Americans get the first crack at a high-skilled job. Many business groups have consulted with Hatch and support his proposals.
Business groups say they have no problem with the goal of hiring American workers but contend that some view the recruitment procedures as burdensome.
The AFL-CIO labor organization disagreed. "The idea that you're going to change the bill to deny American tech workers a shot at the jobs of the future - that's not good politics, that's not good policy and it isn't going to pass," said Jeff Hauser, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO.
"Our view is that technology workers in America who have invested in the skills of the future -- as the tech industry wants them to do - they deserve a fair shot at the jobs of the future," Hauser added.
Daniel Costa, an analyst with the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank, also criticized the proposed amendments, saying that the requirements on high-skilled visas "don't seem to be very onerous."
The sweeping immigration bill, written by the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators, would tighten border security, provide a 13-year path to citizenship for most of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country and revamp visa programs.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday will debate amendments to the bill on H-1B visas, which allow non-U.S. citizens with advanced skills and degrees in specialty occupations to work in the country for up to six years.
FIRST OFFER TO AMERICAS
The Senate bill would require employers that want to use the high-skilled worker visa program to first advertise the job on a government-run website and offer it to any qualified American.
One of Hatch's amendments would loosen these provisions and only require employers to take good-faith steps to recruit Americans. And only "H-1B dependent" companies, which hire a large number of foreign workers, would be required to first offer the job to an American.
The Senate bill would also require companies to pledge not to replace American workers with foreigners for 90 days before and after the companies apply for work visas. Hatch would require that employers not intentionally displace U.S. workers.
Though business and labor are at odds over some provisions in the high-skilled visa program, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO have a deal over separate provisions in the bill concerning low-skilled workers. The "W-visa" program would allow a certain number of people to work in the country temporarily as janitors, hotel workers and in other low-skill jobs.
The bill would put strict limits on the number of construction workers who could obtain these visas.
While joining tech companies and other groups in pushing for changes to the high-skilled worker program, the Chamber of Commerce declined to throw its support behind efforts from the construction industry to expand the low-skill worker program. In its own letter to the Judiciary Committee, the Chamber urged that the "sound structure" in W-visa program be retained.
An amendment from Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah would double the number of visas for low-skilled workers to 400,000 from 200,000. If approved, that amendment could imperil the bill's chances by upsetting the balance the Senate authors sought to achieve among business, labor and other groups.
Geoff Burr of the Associated Builders and Contractors, which represents the construction industry, said that while his group backs Lee's amendment, the votes aren't available at the Judiciary Committee to expand the low-skilled worker program.
Business groups hope that if the immigration bill passes the Democratic-led Senate, the call to increase the size of the low-skill visa program might find favor in the Republican-led House.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)