By Alina Selyukh
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senators introduced a new proposal on Tuesday to make life easier for highly skilled immigrants and their employers to nourish America's high-technology industries as Congress begins the long process of tackling immigration reform.
A bipartisan bill, focused largely on highly educated foreign workers, was introduced in Congress a day after another group of senators unveiled a comprehensive plan for simplifying the U.S. immigration system and giving illegal immigrants a chance to become citizens.
Unlike Monday's plans, Tuesday's bill does not delve into the question of illegal immigration, but offers measures that would ease the legal process for U.S.-educated and other highly skilled foreigners, particularly in fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
The skilled-worker measures are widely supported by the U.S. technology sector, which has long argued that foreign-born talent is crucial to meeting its job demands and to spur innovation and competitiveness.
But the bill will be just one part of what is poised to be a long, uphill battle for immigration reform that President Barack Obama and members of Congress said they will make one of their top priorities in part because of the notable role played by Hispanics in re-electing Obama in the November 6 election.
Many lawmakers from both parties would prefer to pass a law that would tackle both the high-skilled worker concerns and the much-thornier issue of what to do with America's 11 million illegal immigrants.
The new legislation, known as the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013 or "I-Squared," proposes to nearly double the number of H-1B work visas allowed per year, make the cap flexible depending on employer demand and lift it entirely for foreigners with advanced degrees earned in the United States.
"We must be a country that makes stuff again, that invents things, that exports to the world. And to do that, we need the world's talent. That is what this bill is about," said Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat.
Klobuchar introduced the bill with Christopher Coons, a Delaware Democrat who serves with her on the Senate Judiciary Committee; Senator Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican and former Judiciary Committee chairman; and Senator Marco Rubio, a rising Republican star from Florida.
Scores of technology companies and groups - including Google, Intel and Hewlett-Packard - supported the bill, as tech business executives say they need more workers than local talent can satisfy and hope for more visas for foreign high-skilled labor.
"At a time when the U.S. economy needs it most, our immigration policies are stifling innovation," Laszlo Bock, Google's senior vice president of people operations, wrote on the company's blog on Tuesday. He called the bill "a common-sense solution that meets the needs of our high-tech economy without harming domestic employment."
The U.S. government now caps H-1B visas at 65,000 per year, a number routinely exhausted with just a few weeks worth of applications. The visas are particularly popular with workers from India.
The bill would raise the quota to 115,000 - and up to 300,000 depending on economic demands - and do away with the H-1B cap for U.S.-educated immigrants with advanced degrees.
The legislation also proposes changes to the legal process for student visas and green cards. For example, it would exempt immigrants with advanced STEM degrees from having to comply with green card visa quotas and suggests using some of the immigration fees to fund STEM education and training.
"I for one have no fear that our country is going to be overrun by PhDs. I for one have no fear that this country is going to be overrun by nuclear physicists and inventors and entrepreneurs," Rubio said in introducing the bill.
"We tell you, 'Come to America. We're going to let you go to our best schools, we're going to teach you everything we know and then we want you to go somewhere else'... That's not just nonsensical, it is just crazy."
(Additional reporting by Sarah McBride in San Francisco, Editing by Alistair Bell and Philip Barbara)