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Tech firms say Obama’s immigration plan falters on visas

President Obama outlined less-sweeping measures for high-skilled workers.
President Obama outlined less-sweeping measures for high-skilled workers.MICHAEL NELSON/EPA

WASHINGTON — High-tech companies in Boston and elsewhere contend that President Obama's immigration plan will not solve their greatest concern: a shortage of technologically sophisticated, well-educated employees to drive their industry.

Businesses and universities want a significant boost in green cards and skilled worker visas and had hoped to get more from the executive action Obama took last week. The demand for H-1B visas, designed for temporary high-skilled workers, is especially great in New England.

"In order to get at the real issue, the number of visas for these groups has to be expanded fairly dramatically," said Paul Guzzi, the chief executive officer of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.

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Obama outlined less-sweeping measures for high-skilled workers that would grant certain foreign students more time to work in the United States and expand possibilities for some entrepreneurs.

But industry leaders warn that the changes are not enough to keep their global edge.

The president's action "kind of falls short," said Thomas Ketchell, a 26-year-old entrepreneur who spoke from Belgium because he could not stay in the United States. He and the two other cofounders of Hstry, an education technology company based in Back Bay, must bounce between Europe and the United States because they cannot receive H-1B visas, he said.

"It should be a lot easier, considering what we are offering US students," he said.

Senior administration officials defended the modest nature of the changes on legal grounds. They said the administration does not have the authority to raise the cap for H-1B visas without congressional approval. The limit sits at 65,000, with an additional 20,000 for those with advanced degrees from an American university.

Only half of those who applied for a visa this year received one; the permits disappeared in days.

New England has some of the highest demand for H-1B visas in relation to total employment, according to an October report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Last year, Citizenship and Immigration Services approved nearly 11,000 H-1B visas for Massachusetts.

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Obama acknowledged the problem in his speech on Thursday night.

"I will make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy, as so many business leaders have proposed," he said in an address to the nation.

But companies had hoped Obama would allow officials to reissue unused green cards to workers caught in a years-long backlog. That authorization is considered critical by many tech employers because it allows foreigners to live and work in the country on a permanent basis.

The administration said it will continue to work on the issue with industry.

Obama's action proposes several other tweaks, including changes that would make it easier for temporary high-skilled workers to switch jobs and allow spouses to work. Spouses do not currently have that option.

Another would make it possible for high-skilled workers to obtain some green-card benefits as they wait in line for one.

The President's Council of Economic Advisors estimated that his executive action, including the high-skilled component, will expand the country's labor force by nearly 150,000 people over the next decade.

Many of these changes require the creation of rules that could take more than a year.

"This is a step in the right direction," said James Brett, chief executive officer of The New England Council, an alliance of universities, hospitals, and organizations. "But it's only the beginning."

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Other firms expressed confusion over uncertain timelines and vague guidelines.

"There's a whole lot more work to be done to put meat on the bones of what the president is talking about doing," said Peter Muller, director of immigration policy for Intel, a California-based technology company with 1,400 workers in Hudson.

Not everyone sees a need for more temporary skilled workers.

Labor groups, which disagree with the notion of a talent shortage, also were dissatisfied by the president's action. They argue that H-1B visas allow companies to hire cheap labor and undermine American workers. The biggest holders of these visas, labor unions point out, are outsourcing firms.

Such organizations chalked up the president's immigration moves as a win for business.

"It's a tech giveaway," said Paul Almeida, president of the department for professional employees at the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor organization.

He argued that the proposed changes, such as allowing foreign students to work longer in the United States, have no safeguards.

Both sides see a legislative change as the real solution to lasting changes in immigration policy. The Senate passed a sweeping immigration bill last year that would have helped reduce the green-card backup and increase the H-1B cap to 110,000, with the potential to reach 180,000 according to market demand.

The Republican-led House refused to pick it up.

"Everyone has been saying nice things for years and has nothing to show for it," said Scott Corley, the executive director of Compete America, a coalition of businesses and universities. "We want to see actions. We want to see concrete outcomes. And Congress has to do the heaviest lifting."

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Jessica Meyers can be reached at jessica.meyers@globe.com.