By Patrick Temple-West
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate immigration bill outlined Tuesday attempts to meet long-sought demands from America's technology sector for more high-skilled workers from abroad to fill the gap created by a shortage of American candidates.
Under the proposed bipartisan legislation outlined Tuesday, the official quota of "H1-B" visas for high-skilled, foreign workers would increase by 69 percent to 110,000.
But businesses would need to pay these employees high salaries and ensure qualified American applicants are not passed over.
The visa quota could go as high as 180,000 in future years from the current 65,000 limit, based on certain conditions, according to an outline of the bill.
In addition, the number of visas for foreigners who hold advanced degrees from U.S. universities would increase to 25,000 from the current 20,000.
Businesses, particularly tech companies, have lobbied for more H-1B visas for years. Companies apply for these visas annually, and demand routinely outstrips supply.
The H-1B is a nonimmigrant visa in the United States that allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations. The duration of stay is three years, extendable to six years.
Earlier this month, the United States awarded 85,000 H-1B visas while receiving about 124,000 applications.
Critics of the H-1B visas say the program allows companies to pay foreign workers lower salaries than they pay to Americans with comparable skills.
To address this concern, the Senate's draft legislation calls for employers "to pay significantly higher wages for H-1B workers than under current law," the outline said.
Businesses would also need to advertise to American workers first any job openings that could be obtained by foreign applicants.
Companies that are found to be abusing the visa program would be hit with penalties.
More broadly, the Senate's proposal would phase in requirements that businesses of all sizes verify an employee's work status.
Separately, the proposed legislation would create a new visa for foreign entrepreneurs looking to emigrate to the United States to start their own companies.
Another part of the proposed legislation creates a new system for admitting temporary workers for unskilled jobs - janitors, hotel and restaurant workers and laborers - for companies that can show they need them.
Businesses will need to file an estimate of the number of these employees they want to hire, the dates of employment and a description of the type of work.
Businesses can be denied permission to hire these workers if they have previously violated certain U.S. labor rules.
Yet another section of the legislation would cover the flow of agricultural workers, creating a new "guest worker" visa program to ensure an adequate agriculture workforce.
A portable "W" category of visa would replaced the current H-2A visa program for agricultural employment.
(Reporting by Patrick Temple-West. Editing by Fred Barbash and Lisa Shumaker)