By Laura MacInnis and Noel Randewich
WASHINGTON/SANTA CLARA, California (Reuters) - When U.S. restrictions on work permits barred Intel from moving nearly 50 Finnish engineers to the United States this year, the microchip maker reluctantly parked them in a new research center in Finland.
U.S. and multinational firms are chafing at delays and difficulties securing visas that effectively require them to keep high-skilled workers abroad instead of expanding operations in the United States.
"Tech companies like ours follow where the action is and where the talent pools are," said Young Sohn, chief executive of the semiconductor maker Inphi.
That trend puts pressure on President Barack Obama to set aside his plan for a "comprehensive" overhaul of U.S. immigration policies -- at the risk of angering key Hispanic voters -- and fix the system of work permits and green cards for the likes of engineers and programmers.
"America can't afford to let high-skilled immigration reform remain attached to the controversies that surround comprehensive immigration reform more broadly," executives advising Obama on jobs and competitiveness said this week.
"Given the challenges our economy now faces in a global age, we all need to rethink," the chief executives from GE, Boeing, DuPont and other firms said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also wants quick action on skilled workers because of Capitol Hill's resistance to the sweeping deal sought by Obama that would address undocumented workers and border security at the same time.
"I'm not sure you can do this whole thing in one great big bunch," Chamber President Thomas Donohue said. "We might have to do it a piece at a time. And this is the piece that we really ought to be able to get done in a big hurry."
Even with 9.1 percent of Americans unemployed, there are thousands of vacancies in the U.S. manufacturing sector because the U.S. labor force lacks the engineering, computing and math skills companies need.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the cumbersome process to secure visas for top foreign graduates in the United States contributed to "critical shortfalls" in the software industry as well as electronics, pharmaceuticals and aerospace.
"Turning these students out of the country is, to put it bluntly, about the dumbest thing that we could possibly do," he said. "We cannot afford to keep turning away those with skills that our country needs to grow and to succeed. It is sabotaging our own economy."
The United States caps H-1B skilled worker visas at 65,000 a year and often hits the maximum within months, leaving limited options for top-skilled foreign graduates and experts.
And while it issues more than 1 million permanent residency "green cards" each year, only 15 percent are given for economic reasons to workers and their families, and those are subject to nationality quotas that pinch applicants from big countries.
Intel, whose CEO Paul Otellini is a member of Obama's jobs panel, learned in March that the annual cap had already been met for the permits it needed to move over the 50 engineers who previously had worked for Nokia.
The specialists now work in a new R&D center in Helsinki, but Intel said it would have preferred to have them do their mobile computing research in its U.S. facilities.
"Intel's R&D and manufacturing hub is in the United States. It is important to our business group managers to have the flexibility to move individuals with specialized technical expertise to the U.S. to collaborate with existing Intel teams," Intel's staffing manager Idan Zu-Aretz said.
Labor unions have expressed concern that companies hire foreign workers because they can do so at a lower salary than Americans would accept.
But proponents of more skills-based immigration say the salary differential is overstated. They say immigrants tend to create jobs because they are twice as likely as U.S.-born people to start their own companies and can help improve access to foreign export markets.
Obama is likely to tread carefully on the issue of foreign workers because of his preoccupation with reducing the U.S. jobless rate as part of his 2012 re-election campaign.
Turning away from his "comprehensive" immigration approach could also alienate the Democrat from Hispanic voters who want to see help for the estimated 11 million undocumented workers and their families now in the United States.
Cecilia Munoz, the top immigration policy official at the White House, said the prospects for immigration reform depended on Republicans in Congress, who supported a comprehensive fix under the Bush administration but have since cooled to it.
"The challenge for anything in the immigration arena, including the broader immigration reform as a whole or any of these individual pieces, is the lack of bipartisan support," she said in a recent interview.
Scott Corley, head of the Compete America alliance of companies that includes Google, Wal-Mart and Cisco, said there was potential for piecemeal action on skilled immigration before the election.
A bill introduced in the House of Representatives to eliminate green card nationality quotas may be able to clear Congress as a first step, Corley said.
"It's a technical fix that we could do today," he said of the bill from Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz.
He added there was possibility of amendments to other pieces of legislation working their way through Congress.
"We do need a comprehensive reform to the system and we do support that, but the truth is it's not going to happen any time soon," he said.
(Additional reporting by Malathi Nayak and Lucia Mutikani in Washington; Editing by Deborah Charles, Mary Milliken and Eric Walsh)