Hatch's Innovation Plan: Reform H-1B Program, Protect Federal IT

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah Rick Bowmer/AP File Photo

The Utah senator plans to advocate for bringing in high-skilled immigrants who want to stay in the United States.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, wants to allow high-skilled immigrants to support the American tech industry as long as they want to stay in the United States, and their companies aren't abusing the system to offshore jobs.

Protecting the H-1B visa process from abuse—that visa classification allows companies to offer select jobs to foreigners—is just one part of Hatch's multipronged innovation agenda. Unveiled Thursday, it's a laundry list of steps he thinks will encourage domestic technology to flourish. Other strategies include investing in science, technology, engineering and math fields, and ensuring the federal government's IT systems are "up to date and adequately equipped to guard against cyber and other attacks."

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Hatch's efforts come as the administration has drawn sharp criticism from prominent businesses, especially after the travel ban restricted entry into the United States for people from seven Muslim-majority countries. In a series of recent open letters, senior tech executives argued such policies could signal to immigrants—many of whom hold essential positions at their companies—that they're not welcome in the U.S. They also objected to a draft executive order that could roll back the H-1B visa program to protect American jobs.

In the last two Congresses, Hatch had introduced legislation that would increase the cap on H-1B visas and authorize the spouses of those workers to find employment, among other steps.

"Unfortunately, a handful of bad actors has created a great deal of unease about H-1B visas by misusing the system to offshore jobs to foreign workers," he said in remarks.

Companies may "file for way more H-1B visas than they need, squeezing smaller players out of the picture," Hatch said. "We cannot allow this small number of bad actors to wreck the system for the responsible companies."

Hatch plans to reintroduce that legislation, but update it to curb abuse, he said. Options might include H-1B visa caps for any one employer, a series of lotteries for visa applicants, or making it easier to get a green card so there are fewer applications for the H-1B visas.

He also suggested requiring companies to show they "tried to fill a job with an American worker, but was unable to do so" or outlining a visa "expires and goes back into the lottery pool if it’s not used within a certain period."

Hatch's agenda included promoting technology development but also focusing on the associated challenges such as encryption and data privacy. Mobile devices, containing emails and social media accounts, need to be protected, he said.

"Congress, not the courts, needs to drive this issue," Hatch said.