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Senators struggle with tech industry concerns on U.S. immigration bill

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer of New York speaks at the Temple Emanu-El during the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day in New York April 7, 2013
U.S. Senator Charles Schumer of New York speaks at the Temple Emanu-El during the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day in New York April 7, 2013

By Rachelle Younglai and Caren Bohan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate supporters of a broad U.S. immigration bill struggled on Wednesday to satisfy technology companies that want greater leeway to hire high-skilled foreign workers.

Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York took the lead in trying to broker a compromise on a visa program for skilled workers known as H-1B that has divided business groups and organized labor. The two sides are at odds over requirements that companies first seek Americans for any job openings and a prohibition on displacing U.S. workers.

The tech industry and labor both wield a great deal of clout in the debate over a sweeping Senate bill that would step up border enforcement, give 11 million illegal immigrants a chance for citizenship and revamp visa programs for high- and low-skilled workers.

The AFL-CIO labor organization says the recruitment and displacement requirements in the bill are merely efforts to protect American workers, while the tech industry argues the provisions are burdensome and in some cases unworkable.

Pushing on behalf of the tech companies is Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, who has not yet said whether he will back the broad immigration bill but says changes to accommodate tech firms could be crucial to his decision.

Hatch has introduced several tech-related amendments to the bill written by the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators. The amendments are strongly supported by Silicon Valley and business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, but opposed by the AFL-CIO.

The labor organization has a powerful ally in Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, who strongly opposes giving companies more leeway to hire foreign workers.

Schumer is working to settle the issue before a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled for Thursday, according to congressional aides and lobbyists. Schumer, Durbin and Hatch all sit on the Judiciary Committee, and Schumer and Durbin are members of the Gang of Eight.

HATCH'S SUPPORT SEEN CRITICAL

The Group of Eight senators, who have pledged to work together to preserve a consensus on the immigration bill, met on Tuesday night. The H-1B visa program was one of the issues discussed, according to congressional aides. The group has been urging both sides to reach a deal on the visa program and considers Hatch's support to be important for the bill's chances in the full Senate and in the House because of the message it would send to other Republicans.

"I think the rest of the group understands that Hatch's support is critical," one congressional aide said. "We need all the support we can get. Senator Hatch has said that if we can address the H-1B issues in the bill, that he can support the legislation."

A system known as "E-Verify" that allows U.S. employers to check the legal status of workers is also proving to be a divisive issue in the discussion of the immigration bill.

Under the Senate bill, use of the system would be mandatory for all employers within five years. But businesses and many civil liberties groups worry about an error rate in which roughly one out of every 400 searches turns up incorrect information. That sometimes happens because of errors in typing names into the system or because of issues such as confusion over name changes for people recently married.

In an amendment backed by a broad array of interest groups, Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota has proposed delaying the full implementation of the verification mandate for companies with 14 or fewer employees unless the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees E-Verify, can certify the system meets a certain accuracy rate.

The amendment is backed by groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, several immigrant advocacy groups and some small-business organizations. But it is strongly opposed by the National Restaurant Association, which says exempting some businesses but not others would make for unfair competition.

"It's a deal-killer. If you start creating exemptions, how are people going to see that you are serious about enforcement?" said Angelo Amador, vice president of labor and workforce policy for the National Restaurant Association, which represents some 980,000 food-service establishments.

But Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the ACLU, said the amendment would keep pressure on the Department of Homeland Security to try to ensure E-Verify is as accurate as possible.

"I think what this does, which is so important, is it keeps the focus on accuracy, in a real and meaningful way so that there will be an actual consequence if the system is not accurate," Calabrese said.

(Reporting by Caren Bohan and Rachelle Younglai; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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