Microsoft has led the push to allow more high-tech workers into the United States under H-1B visas by charging companies an extra fee that would help fund science, technology, engineering and math education for the next generation of American workers.
But the tech industry is far from universal in its support for this concept.
That much was clear during a roundtable discussion with Congresswoman Suzan DelBene, the former Microsoft executive now representing Washington’s 1st Congressional District, covering much of the Eastside.
DelBene, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, is holding a series of meetings on immigration reform this week. She spent an hour Wednesday afternoon with representatives of several tech companies — Google, Concur, Vertafore, MobiSante, Data I/O, and iLink Systems — at the Concur headquarters in Redmond. GeekWire was there to listen in.
One of the questions asked by DelBene was about the plan to charge companies to increase the limit for H-1B visas.
“From a startup perspective, the fees are already pretty steep. We can barely afford them,” answered Sailesh Chutani, the MobiSante CEO, and a former Microsoftie himself. He said he understands the plan from an intellectual perspective, including the need to support education at all levels. However, he said, “from a startup perspective, it’s onerous.”
Bradley Meacham of insurance software company Vertafore also stressed the importance of STEM education but echoed Chutani’s sentiment about costs.
“We’re looking for the best talent, period,” Meacham said. “If we can’t find enough talent locally, we are forced to look at people outside our borders. It is expensive, and it is time consuming. I can’t really see how adding expense would get to a solution.”
Tech companies have long complained that the caps are too low for bringing immigrant high-tech workers into the country — often raising objections from tech workers in the U.S. who say companies aren’t doing enough to take advantage of the talent that’s here.
Microsoft originally recommended that Congress create a new, supplemental allocation of 20,000 additional visas, charging employers $10,000 per worker brought to the country under one of those visas. More recently, a bipartisan Senate proposal would instead charge employers an extra $1,000 for every H-1B visa, and increase the annual quota from 65,000 to 115,000.
Overall, the executives meeting yesterday with DelBene said that reform should make the immigration system more transparent and less expensive. Several expressed support for granting green cards to foreigners who graduate with advanced degrees.
Several of the executives told horror stories about dealing with the immigration system. Cindy Olsen, vice president of human resources for Concur, recalled her unsuccessful attempt to bring an employee from the Philippines into the U.S. for a companywide meeting.
“To think I didn’t have any control over that was a new experience for me,” she said. “You don’t know why they’re denied, and if you keep trying, then you risk them never being able to come here. Personally for me, that was a really trying situation. They were part of the Concur family, you would think that we could get them here, but there was nothing I could do.”
After the meeting, DelBene acknowledged the concerns raised about the costs of the H-1B program for companies, and said she believes reform needs to include a comprehensive look at expenses.
“We need a system that works for everybody,” DelBene said. “I do think that complexity adds to the expense. I think we need to look generally at the overall system and what the costs are, and make sure we have a system that works, so that people can understand — not just businesses, but people who are coming into this country can understand how our immigration system works. That actually will reduce the cost for everybody involved.”