WASHINGTON — Senate negotiators have reached a tentative deal with tech companies to ease restrictions on hiring foreigners for high-skilled jobs as part of a sweeping immigration bill, congressional and industry officials said on Tuesday.
Judiciary Committee members have been in negotiations with companies and the AFL-CIO union over whether to lift constraints on H-1B visas allowing American companies to hire highly skilled foreign workers.
Under the deal struck between Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the Senate would back a looser formula for determining the annual number of H-1B visas issued.
Georgia Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, both Republicans, said they are looking forward to reviewing the final language of the bill once it makes it to the Senate floor.
“I believe that immigration reform is an important issue that needs to be addressed in our country,” Isakson said. “To that end, I will reserve judgment until I see the final proposal and have the opportunity to debate this issue on the Senate floor.”
Chambliss issued a similar statement.
“We have not seen the final language yet. When we get it, I am not committing to any position until I have had a chance to review it thoroughly,” Chambliss said. “Even then, the bill will come to the Senate floor under regular order, making it subject to the amending process all the way through floor action.”
According to the deal, no increase in visas could occur if the U.S. unemployment rate in a particular profession is 4.5 percent or higher or if the jobless rate in that sector is greater than in the previous 12-month period.
Schumer also accepted one of Hatch’s most contentious proposals, strongly opposed by the AFL-CIO, that requires “H-1B dependent” companies only to make an effort to hire Americans for the jobs first.
The immigration bill currently requires all companies that hire H-1B employees, not just those that are defined as dependent on the high-skill visas, to initially recruit U.S. workers.
Hatch has said he would seek additional changes during debate in the full Senate. The bill is now before the Judiciary Committee.
Those changes are thought to have to do with whether illegal immigrants who would be granted legal status could qualify for government programs such as Social Security and tax credits for children and families with low incomes.
The tentative deal needs approval from the Judiciary Committee, and the entire immigration bill needs to pass the Senate and House of Representatives before President Barack Obama can sign it into law.