WASHINGTON - December 23, 2013
President Barack Obama's executive action on immigration is expected to include some modest changes to make it easier for technology companies to retain high-skilled workers frustrated by long and unpredictable waits for green cards.
But the major overhaul that the tech sector is seeking of the visa and green card system would require action by Congress. For now at least, the prospects for legislation appear to be slim.
Obama has pledged take executive action on immigration by year-end and could act as early as next Friday. Lobbyists for tech companies said they have not seen details about the fixes. But based on the options the tech sector pitched to the administration, they are expecting only incremental changes.
"We'd be grateful for anything, really, because the situation is that severe," said Emily Lam, a vice president with the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a trade group that represents more than 375 employers.
"The true fix really has to be legislative, anything within their power is really going to be tweaking on the sides. It doesn't solve the fundamental issues," she said.
One big reform that requires legislation: Lifting the annual cap for H1B visas for specialized technology workers that last for up to six years.
The United States loses about 500,000 jobs per year because of those limits, according to estimates from Compete America, a coalition representing tech giants including Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft.
Most changes within Obama's powers are aimed at easing the transition for workers moving from H1B visas to greencards.
For example, lobbyists think the administration could finalize a regulation announced in May that would give work permits to spouses of some skilled immigrants with temporary visas.
The most ambitious proposal for tech would speed up long wait lists for green cards for employees on temporary H1B visas by changing the way their spouses and children are counted under an annual cap of 140,000.
But several lobbyists told Reuters they were not optimistic that the proposal would be accepted due to fears by some lawyers it could be challenged in court.
"I think some of it will be band-aids," said one industry lobbyist. "While they're little fixes, it creates a bigger political problem," the lobbyist said.
The fear is that bigger legislative fixes for business could get caught up in an explosive political war between Republicans and Obama over relief for undocumented immigrants, prolonging the needed changes.
Obama's Immigration Plan Has Both Relief and Risk for Tech Sector