Immigration provision pleases Conn. high-tech companies

Washington -– A compromise over visas for highly skilled workers has pleased many Connecticut companies –- and has angered labor unions.

The Senate Judiciary Committee agreed to allow the number of  highly skilled foreign workers admitted to the country each year to rise from 65,000 to 110,000, with the possibility of a further increase to 180,000, depending in part on unemployment levels.

“Raising the current 65,000 cap on H1-Bs would be helpful to companies like us, with a significant technology focus,” said David Lebowitz, an attorney with the human resources department at Stamford-based Pitney Bowes.

H-1B visas allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty areas, including biotechnology, mathematics, engineering, medicine and  computer programing.

The foreign worker visa program was one of the last issues considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee before it voted to approve a massive immigration bill Tuesday.

It is also one of the most controversial aspects of the bill. The issue helped scuttle the measure the last time Congress proposed a major overhaul of the nation’s immigration system in 2007.

Supporters say the increase in the number of H-1B visas offers more opportunities for American businesses to recruit the best talent. Opponents say it takes jobs away from American workers and discourages American students from entering, science, technology, engineering or mathematic (STEM) disciplines.

Besides increasing the numbers of visas, the Senate proposal for skilled foreign workers would ease restrictions on businesses applying for them, including a requirement businesses look for U.S. workers first.  It would also raise the cap  — from 20,000 to 25,000 — on another class of H-1B visas for foreigners holding advanced degrees from American colleges .

Connecticut companies joined others across the nation in lobbying lawmakers on the H-1B issue .

Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, said he heard from many companies in his district and held a roundtable on the issue last month attended by some of them, including Pitney Bowes, Norwalk-based etouches and New Haven–based United Illuminating Company.

Himes said he supports what the Senate Judiciary Committee has done, because it will also encourage foreign entrepreneurs to create businesses in the United States.

“As we work to diversify and grow our economy, we will benefit greatly by doing everything we can to encourage the best talent in the world to build their businesses here,” he said.

But the main purpose of the visa is to allow companies to find employees with the skills they need from overseas.

“There are definitely a number of entrepreneurs who are having a difficult time finding qualified workers,” said Peter Propp of the Stamford Innovation Center.

Jennifer Leahy, human resources manager at etouches, said the software company currently has one employee with an H-1B visa. But that employee is very valuable to the company and she can foresee the need to hire others from overseas “in order to keep operating.”

“It’s really critical for us to have access to foreign nationals,” she said.

But the H-1B visa only allows a worker to stay in the United States for six years and Leahy is concerned the proposed immigration law does not address a backlog in applications from H-1B workers seeking permanent residency.

Nevertheless, Leahy said she’s pleased there’s a proposal to sharply increase the number of H-1B visas because that could lessen the completion among businesses for permission to hire foreign workers.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he voted for the increase in visas after hearing concerns from constituents.

“I heard from businessmen and managers in Connecticut who tell me they have jobs that are unfilled because they could not find people with computer, science or technical skills,” he said.

Blumenthal said the bill’s increase in funding for STEM education helped him support the visa provision.  The money would come from fees companies pay to apply for these visas.

But the prospect of more money to educate and train U.S. workers has not  quelled organized labor’s anger over the proposed expansion of the H-1B visa program.  AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka issued an angry statement calling the proposed expansion of the visa program  an “unambiguous attacks on American workers.”

Connecticut isn’t in the top 10 states when it comes to workers with H-1B visas. California leads the list followed by Texas, New York and New Jersey. Massachusetts comes in at No. 7. But while the State Department had no recent data on H-1B visas in Connecticut, there’s no doubt companies in the state are using them.

Fairfield-based General Electric received more than 5,500 H-1B visas last year, Pitney Bowes received more than 400 and United Technologies more than 300.

But Matthew Nemerson, who has taken leave as head of the Connecticut Technology Council to run for mayor of New Haven, said many companies in the state are grappling with the issue.

He said they would prefer to retrain American workers for high tech jobs, either by sending them back to school or new incentives for on-the-job training.

But he concedes other have no choice but to look for foreign workers because they can’t find qualified U.S. workers or any who want to relocate to Connecticut.

“There are definitely two different camps, two different points of view,” he said.

The immigration bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday would allow about 11 million undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status after a paying a $500 fine and any back taxes owed.

Applicants for legal status must have arrived in the United States before Dec. 31, 2011, and not have a felony conviction or more than two misdemeanors on their record.

The bill would allow undocumented youths to apply for residency in five years.  It would also beef up security at the U.S. border with Mexico and increase penalties on companies that hire undocumented workers.

The legislation is expected to be considered by the full Senate in June.