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Utah Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch Feb. 16 promised the technology community that he will work with President Donald Trump on changes to the foreign worker visa program as part of a broader “innovation agenda” for the 115th Congress.
Hatch, who leads the Senate Republican High-Tech Task Force, said he is “mindful of the angst” experienced by the tech sector over a prospective executive order on foreign worker visas. “I want you all to know that I will work with the president on this and that I will do my part if you will do yours,” he said in remarks at an event at the Capitol. “That includes not provoking the White House unnecessarily.”
The pledge was part of a laundry list of agenda items that appeal to the tech sector, including proposals related to data privacy, broadband investment, the internet of things, drones and making changes to intellectual property law. It’s unclear how quickly any of them would become laws or regulations. The tech sector is leery of changes Trump might move to implement for visa programs for highly skilled workers.
Hatch said he will reintroduce a bill to modernize the H-1B visa system for high-skilled foreign workers. Options include capping the number of H-1B visas for which an employer can apply, conducting multiple waves of visa lotteries and streamlining the process for green cards, he said.
Hatch, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced the Immigration Innovation Act, also known as the I-Squared Act, in each of the last two Congresses but it failed to advance. He said he is updating the legislation to address some of the H-1B visa system’s challenges. Earlier versions of the bill would have, among other things, increased the annual cap on H-1B visas to 115,000 from 65,000 and made the cap flexible in future years based on market needs.
“We need to reform this process to better identify high-skilled individuals who want to come to the United States—and who want to stay here—to contribute to our economy and our way of life,” Hatch said.
Hatch also stressed what he described as the importance of an open internet and the free flow of data and data privacy. He urged Congress to work with U.S. trading partners to remove barriers to digital trade, including local data storage requirements.
The Utah Republican called for updating the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to require a warrant for all e-mail content in the U.S. The ECPA’s 180-day rule doesn’t require a warrant for the government to access e-mail content older than 180 days. The House Feb. 6 passed legislation, the Email Privacy Act ( H.R. 387), that would repeal that rule.
Hatch, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, proposed reducing the corporate tax rate to help keep U.S. tech companies competitive in foreign markets.
Tech industry groups and companies praised Hatch’s agenda.
Hatch has “been a great voice for the tech industry and has been right on target with these issues,” Craig Albright, vice president of legislative strategy at the BSA | The Software Alliance in Washington, told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 16.
Albright said that both American and high-skilled foreign workers are critical to the tech industry, as are policies that address barriers to the flow of data across borders.
Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, said in a statement that Hatch’s agenda will fuel job creation and attract “the world’s best and brightest talent.” He said Hatch’s plan “recognizes that innovation depends on nurturing, getting and keeping the best and brightest and a legal and regulatory system encouraging creativity and entrepreneurship.”
Hatch has led the High-Tech Task Force since 2009. Its mission is to promote innovation, spur high-tech investment and “create a business environment that attracts the leading global technology,” according to a press release. Other members of the task force include Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.).
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