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Congress is holding H-1B boost 'hostage,' says Oracle lobbyist

If the issue stays entangled with volatile debate over undocumented workers, high-tech companies' efforts to hire more foreigners through skilled worker visas are "toast," he says.

HOLLYWOOD, Calif.--The politically explosive debate over millions of undocumented U.S. workers appears to be smothering high-tech companies' attempts to obtain higher allotments of H-1B temporary visas and green cards, Oracle's head lobbyist suggested Wednesday.

Any "rational" politician understands those longstanding pleas to bring in more skilled foreigners for gaps where no qualified Americans fit, said Robert Hoffman, who also serves as co-chairman of a coalition of high-tech companies called Compete America that lobbies for heightened visa caps. By his estimation, if that issue were severed from the rest of the immigration debate, it would "easily" sail through Congress and become law.

"As long as Congress holds us hostage to the broader question of comprehensive immigration reform, we're toast," Hoffman said during a panel discussion at the Tech Policy Summit here.

Last year, of course, a proposed H-1B cap increase found itself a casualty of a far more sweeping immigration bill that died amid myriad political clashes. In recent weeks, a number of standalone H-1B proposals have surfaced, proposing anywhere from doubling to tripling the annual cap, but Hoffman seemed pessimistic about the prospects of any such changes, even on a short-term basis, while the broader divisions persist.

The frustrating result of that political skirmish, Hoffman added, is that this year's class of foreign graduates from American universities most likely won't even have a shot at jobs with technology companies in the United States.

That's because the high-tech industry predicts that, when the petition window for next year's crop of visas opens next week, the number of applications will rapidly exceed the cap, just as it did last year, potentially months before the new graduates even have their requisite degrees in hand. The H-1B program allows foreigners with at least a bachelor's degree in their area of specialty to work for a company in the United States for up to six years. The annual cap is currently 65,000 new visas--not including renewals and an additional 20,000 for foreigners with advanced degrees from U.S. universities.

The H-1B set-up, of course, is not without controversy. A group of American computer programmers called the Programmer's Guild has for years advanced a platform that H-1Bs devalue and displace American workers and that the "shortage" of qualified personnel claimed by technology companies isn't real. Some politicians, including Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), have raised concerns about abuse and proposed requiring U.S. employersto do more to certify that they're giving Americans first dibs on openings before hiring foreigners.

Hoffman, for his part, said his impression is that the idea of allowing more skilled, potentially American university-educated foreigners to work in the United States is really not so contentious, either among politicians or among citizens more broadly.

"If you ask the general public, what's your position on skilled immigration, they'll say, 'Yeah, sure, why not?'" he said. "As opposed to (when you ask) shall we give undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship? And (you hear), 'No, heavens no.'"