WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican and Democratic senators introduced legislation on Tuesday that would make it easier for high-tech firms in the United States to hire more foreign specialists in science, technology and engineering.
A bill by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah, which is home to some of the companies that would benefit, would increase the number of high-tech visas to 115,000 a year from 65,000. But that cap could go as high as 195,000 in any one year if demand for the workers was strong.
The bill also would loosen restrictions on permanent resident status in the United States for some high-tech workers and their dependents.
Hatch, a Republican, first introduced the measure in 2013, and it was incorporated into an immigration bill passed by the Senate later that year. That overhaul of U.S. immigration law died when Republicans in the House of Representatives refused to consider it in 2014.
Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google are among the companies that have been clamoring for better access to high-skilled foreign workers.
"This bill would help us to attract the best and brightest minds who want to bring their talents to our companies by using a market driven approach to match what our economy needs in terms of high-skilled employees," said Andy Halataei, vice president of the Information Technology Industry Council. It represents companies that include Aol, Google, Dell, Facebook and Microsoft.
A senior Senate Democratic aide signaled opposition, however, saying that some of the party's senators likely would refuse to embrace the bill without solid assurances that a broad range of other immigration problems would also addressed.
Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, an opponent of the 2013 Senate immigration bill, said in a memo to fellow Republicans that it was a "false claim" that there is a shortage of qualified American workers for high-tech jobs.
Legislation to increase foreigners' access to those jobs, Sessions said, was an attempt by industry to get access to cheaper labor, freezing out U.S. workers.
With the fate of the bill in the Republican-controlled Senate in doubt, Hatch nevertheless said such a bipartisan measure could be used for "more progress on immigration reform."
But relations between the White House and congressional Republicans on immigration are sour following President Barack Obama's decision in November to ease the threat of deportation for millions of undocumented residents.
Reporting By Richard Cowan and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Grant McCool and Paul Simao