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Sen. Hatch's 'I-Squared' bill could more than double cap on high-skill visas

SALT LAKE CITY — The nation's cap on high-skilled visas could more than double under legislation sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Last week, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced it had received 233,000 applications for 85,000 high-skilled visas. The cap allows for 65,000 visas for international workers with bachelor degrees and 20,000 for those with graduate degrees. The application window for the 2016 allotment of H-1B visas opened April 1, and the cap was met in less than five business days.

"The current cap is preventing American companies from hiring tens of thousands of high-skilled workers needed to grow businesses, develop technologies and compete in today’s economy," Hatch said during a news conference Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

"This limitation is forcing American companies to outsource their innovation centers to competitors like Canada. This hurts America. We can do better,” he said.

U.S. businesses use the H-1B program to employ foreign workers in occupations that require highly specialized knowledge in fields such as science, engineering and computer programming. The visas are initially approved for three years and can be extended for another three.

In January, Hatch introduced the Immigration Innovation Act of 2015, which would raise the statutory cap on H-1B visas to 115,000, "with the possibility of the cap rising as high as 195,000 depending on economic conditions," he said Tuesday.

The bill, commonly referred to as the "I-Squared Act," would also increase access to green cards for high-skilled workers by expanding the exemptions and eliminating the annual per country limits for employment-based green cards.

Hatch also met with 15 immigrant entrepreneurs Tuesday to discuss the urgent need for high-skilled immigration reform.

According to the American Enterprise Institute, each foreign-born worker with a STEM degree who remains in the United States creates an average of more than 2 ½ additional American jobs, Hatch said.

"We need to unlock this potential and secure our rightful position as the innovation engine of the world," he said.

"That’s why I’ve offered my 'I-Squared' bill, which addresses the immediate need to provide American employers with greater access to high-skilled workers," Hatch said.

The caps impact the nation's ability to maintain a strong economy that offers greater opportunities for all Americans, he said.

"The problem is the shortage of high-skilled labor here in the United States. America will face a shortage of more than 220,000 workers with science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees by 2018," Hatch said. "How can that be? Our country trains and educates some of the greatest minds in the world. How do we lose the talent to our competitors?"

Last year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received 172,500 applications for 85,000 spots, and some experts estimated that more than 200,000 petitions will be filed this year. In 2014, the number of petitions exceeded available spots in five days.

This year, the agency received 233,000 petitions for the same number of visas. The applications exceeded the number of available slots before close of business the fifth day of the application window.

Citizenship and Immigration Services will use a computer-generated selection process or lottery to randomly select the petitions needed to meet the caps of 65,000 visas for the general category and 20,000 for the advanced degree exemption allotted for 2016.

The cap on H-1B visas was as high as 120,000 in 2001, which was the same year as the Sept. 11 attacks on America. The cap was lowered to current levels and has not been raised since.