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Brad Smith, Microsoft general counsel

It’s the start of an annual tradition, and the revival of a perennial debate.

Today is the first day for companies to submit petitions to employ highly skilled foreign workers in the U.S. under H-1B visas in 2013 — a program used by many U.S. tech companies to allow engineers from China, India and other countries to work here.

The program has raised objections over the years from labor groups and others who contend that people on H-1B visas are taking jobs from U.S. workers.

However, Microsoft and other companies that use the program contend that it helps the economy in the long run to bring these workers to the U.S. They say the current restrictions on the program are too severe.

In a post today, Microsoft’s Brad Smith called on Congress to move ahead with reforms, pushing for the Senate to pass the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act that was approved overwhelmingly by the House last year.

“The bill would replace the discriminatory ‘per-country’ limits on employment-based green cards with a merit-based, first-come-first-served system, but it has unfortunately stalled in the Senate. The Senate should act now and pass this important legislation. Congress should also pass legislation to help ensure that the U.S. can retain top foreign students who complete their education at U.S. universities, rather than driving them away after graduation to compete against us in other countries.”

Given the high rate of unemployment across the U.S., the initiative could face an uphill climb, but Smith notes that unemployment in the technology sector is less than 4 percent.

The limit on H-1B petitions for the 2013 fiscal year is 65,000, and federal officials say the first 20,000 petitions for people with master’s degrees or higher are exempt from the cap.

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