Business Backs Key Immigration Amendment

Posted June 4, 2007 at 6:41pm

More than 20 business groups from a wide variety of industries have called on Senators to support an amendment to the embattled comprehensive immigration bill. The amendment, sponsored by Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), would give companies more flexibility in their hiring of highly skilled workers and would leave much of the employment-related immigration law as it is now.

Many of the business groups, which on Monday sent a letter outlining their position to key Senators, say their support for the immigration bill hinges on the Cantwell-Cornyn amendment.

Big business stalwarts such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers joined with a collection of technology groups and others to push for the amendment. The Information Technology Industry Council, the Financial Services Roundtable, TechNet, the Business Software Alliance and the Society for Human Resource Management all signed on to the letter as well.

“This amendment is key for us to be supportive of the bill,” said Ralph Hellmann, the top lobbyist for the Information Technology Industry Council.

In many ways the Cantwell-Cornyn amendment would be a win for the status quo, as it would maintain aspects of the current immigration system favored by big business. The amendment would allow employers more flexibility to sponsor whomever they wanted for many of the allotted employment-based green cards — and would not limit employers to only those potential employees who met a certain level of points set out by the government. The point-based system has come under heavy criticism from businesses.

The amendment also would allow highly skilled temporary workers who are here on H-1B visas to pursue a dual path toward citizenship or permanent residency. And lobbyists said the amendment also would allow foreigners who have significant work experience, in lieu of advanced degrees, to qualify for the H-1B visas.

Hellmann said the immigration bill — the result of a delicate compromise and backed by the Bush administration — has “fundamental flaws” but that the amendment would solve key problems.

“It’s about maintaining the flexibility in the system right now as it relates to these specialized workers,” said Scott Talbott, senior vice president of government affairs for the Financial Services Roundtable, which has not yet taken a position on the broader immigration bill. “We don’t want to disrupt the overall bill. We think this amendment will strengthen the bill.”

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said the administration doesn’t have a position on the Cantwell-Cornyn amendment.

The NAM has made the issue a priority vote because “we’re opposed to proposals that would restrict the access to skilled workers,” said the NAM’s Kat Snodgrass.

The June 4 letter said the amendment was crucial to attracting and retaining “the world’s most highly skilled professionals. The amendment would significantly improve the proposed merit-based green card system and H-1B reforms in a manner that would preserve the integrity of the compromise legislation.”

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.