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Proposed immigration bill could stem Silicon Valley's brain drain

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US Senators to unveil sweeping reform package Tuesday

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google I'm feeling lucky stock 1020

A bipartisan group of US senators this week is expected to unveil a sweeping immigration bill that would have a significant impact across just about every part of the American economy — including the tech sector. Led by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the so-called Gang of Eight will introduce the bill as early as Tuesday, according to Politico. McCain and Schumer are expected to discuss the legislation during a sit-down with President Obama today, after delaying their public announcement due to Monday's attacks at the Boston Marathon.

According to Politico, which obtained an early copy of the bill's summary, the legislation calls for some of the most dramatic reforms to US immigration policy in three decades, and is likely to stir controversy on both sides of the aisle. Known as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, the law calls for tighter border controls, a new "W-visa" program for low-skilled workers, and, most notably, a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented workers already in the US. For Silicon Valley, however, the bill's most salient provision addresses foreign-born high-skilled workers.

"The country’s economic problems are just going to get worse without rational immigration reform."

The US currently limits its H-1B high-skilled visas to 65,000 per year. Under the Gang of Eight's plan, that quota would increase to 110,000, and could reach as high as 180,000, depending on industry demand. There are caveats, though; if H-1B holders comprise more than 30 percent of a company's work force, that firm would be subject to new fees. Beginning in fiscal year 2014, companies with a work force of at least 75 percent H-1B holders would be banned from hiring any new employees. In 2015, that threshold would drop to 65 percent, and in 2016, to 50 percent.

It's a provision that would likely have a significant impact across several industries, though it may be most acutely felt in Silicon Valley, where calls for an expanded worker program have become more vociferous in recent months. Earlier this month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched — an interest group that calls for a path to citizenship for high-skilled immigrants. The idea, according to Zuckerberg, is to spur job growth and innovation by attracting the world's brightest minds to US shores.

"Why don’t we let entrepreneurs move here when they have what it takes to start companies that will create even more jobs?"

"Why do we offer so few H-1B visas for talented specialists that the supply runs out within days of becoming available each year, even though we know each of these jobs will create two or three more American jobs in return?" the executive wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post this month. "Why don’t we let entrepreneurs move here when they have what it takes to start companies that will create even more jobs?"

The Gang of Eight's bill may curry favor with Zuckerberg and his venture capitalist colleagues, though it apparently stops short of calling for a startup visa — a dedicated category for foreign born engineers and entrepreneurs. Industry leaders have been urging Congress to adopt a startup visa for years now, describing it as critical to ensuring Silicon Valley's intellectual livelihood, but all legislative attempts have thus far fallen short. The UK, Chile, and Canada have all adopted similar programs, fueling fears of an impending "brain drain" within the US.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vet the Gang of Eight's package during two hearings — one Friday, one Monday — while a separate group in the House prepares its own bipartisan proposal. The Senate's bill will likely be the subject of heated debate in the coming weeks, and allegations of amnesty for illegal immigrants may impede its passage.

But with Republicans looking to woo more Latino voters, and as job growth remains sluggish, Gang of Eight member Lindsay Graham (R-SC) seems optimistic about his bill's chances. "The country’s economic problems are just going to get worse without rational immigration reform," Graham told Politico.