Intel Corp., Hilton Worldwide Inc. and other companies seeking a larger number of legal foreign workers through changes to immigration law likely will find their push thwarted by the Republicans’ sweeping election gains.
Lawmakers who will lead the debate in the new Republican-controlled U.S. House say they want to focus on securing the border and cracking down on illegal immigration, rather than other matters. Only after it is shown that fewer illegal immigrants are coming across the U.S.-Mexico border will they consider the revisions to immigration law sought by businesses, they say.
Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican slated to head the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration policy subcommittee, said in an interview that he opposes lifting visa caps for lower-skilled foreign workers because doing so would depress U.S. workers’ wages. He said he would support increasing the number of visas for higher-skilled workers only if the potential employees meet criteria to boost the U.S. economy.
That means they should be young, well-educated and be able to speak English, King said. “That’s the indicator of whether they can assimilate into the broader society,” he said.
The business agenda calls for increases in worker visas for skilled and unskilled labor, along with more employment-based “green cards” -- proof of permanent residency in the U.S.
Corporate officials and lobbyists must deal with midterm election results, in which the Republicans have won a majority of seats in the House, according to network projections.
“We’re as anxious as anyone else to see how it shakes out and whether this will be on the agenda next year,” said Peter Muller, director of government relations at Intel Corp.
Technology companies such as EBay Inc. and Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. want Congress to lift the cap on H-1B visas for skilled workers. Since the start of the 2004 fiscal year, when a three-year temporary increase in the cap to 195,000 expired, the annual limit has been at 65,000. In fiscal 2010, the cap was reached in nine months.
Companies also want to lift the limit on employment-based green cards, now set at 140,000.
At Intel, about 6.5 percent of the company’s 40,000 U.S.- based employees hold temporary visas granted foreign workers, and the company helps those workers apply immediately to get green cards. “We want to keep them ideally for their entire career,” Muller said.
Still, the wait often is eight to 10 years, causing uncertainty both for the workers and for their employers.
The agenda for restaurant and hotel industries is focused on seasonal, lower-skilled workers. Jonas Neihardt, a lobbyist for McLean, Virginia-based Hilton, is pushing for a simpler system to verify the legal status of workers and a boost in the number of H-2B visas for non-farm seasonal employees, now capped at 66,000. Neihardt is urging that changes be made before the economy improves.
“We’re anticipating when things get better we’ll need more of those types of workers,” he said.
Senate Democrats in April outlined a rewrite of immigration law that, along with proposing a crackdown on drug trafficking and illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, sought changes that included a pathway to permanent legal residency for some of the estimated 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. It also called for a new three-year visa for temporary, low- skilled workers with an annual limit that adjusts with the economy, as well as immediate green cards for foreign students who get advanced degrees in engineering or math from a U.S. university.
The effort was hamstrung when Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, stopped working with Democrats on a compromise, urging them to wait until 2011.
Corporations are holding out hope that the importance of the Latino vote in the 2012 presidential elections will cause congressional Republican leaders to support a broad bill next year.
“It will be an uphill battle, but it could be that the Republicans would see that it’s to their advantage to get this issue behind them,” said Randy Johnson, vice president for labor policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
That hope belies the views of some of the Republicans ascending to power.
In the House, King is in line to replace Representative Zoe Lofgren as immigration subcommittee chairman. Lofgren, a California Democrat and one-time immigration lawyer, supports the comprehensive approach to rewriting policy.
King, 61, said he favors a piecemeal approach, with the initial spotlight on border security. He also wants to help draft legislation that would revoke birthright U.S. citizenship for so-called anchor babies of illegal immigrants.
His priorities for business include a measure that would boost taxes on employers found by the Internal Revenue Service to have hired illegal immigrants. Those companies wouldn’t be able to treat the illegal workers’ wages and benefits as a deductible business expense, and they would also pay a penalty.
“It takes a $10-an-hour illegal and turns them into a $16-an-hour illegal,” King said.
Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican expected to become chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview that while he would favor holding hearings about foreign worker visas and other immigration issues, next year he wants to draft legislation dealing only with border security.
“I’m still of the mind we have to secure the border first,” he said in an interview.
In 2007 Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, worked with Democrats on a comprehensive immigration bill that failed. He said in an interview that he won’t support anything beyond border security until the fight against illegal immigration improves in parts of his state.
“There has to be more of an effort to actually secure the border -- not just to spend money, not just to say we have more resources than ever before,” he said.
Kyl also said companies must realize that the recession -- which became the nation’s worst since the Great Depression -- changed the immigration debate.
He said labor unions are more opposed to expanding the pool of foreign labor now than before. “The temporary-worker program has gone backwards in terms of a consensus,” Kyl said.