(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Sen. Orrin Hatch gave the first clear signal he will support comprehensive immigration reform legislation -- once Democrats make some concessions on loosening visa regulations for high-tech workers.

Hatch poised to back immigration bill with changes


First Published May 20 2013 04:41 pm
Last Updated Dec 07 2013 11:32 pm

Washington • Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is poised to support a massive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, including a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. He just wants the Democrats to make some concessions first.

Hatch outlined his expectations in an impromptu news conference Monday, saying he’d support the bill when the Judiciary Committee votes later this week if Democrats compromise on temporary visas for high-skilled workers.

And he’s willing to back the legislation when the full Senate votes later this summer, if they adopt some of his ideas on taxes and health care.

"They know I’ve been straight up with them," Hatch said of his negotiations with Democrats. "I think they want to work with me."

His appears to be the only vote up for grabs on a committee in which almost everyone else has already staked out positions. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has already announced his opposition to the measure.

They don’t need his vote to push the bill out of committee, but leading Democrats and Republican sponsors, such as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have courted Hatch, believing his vote would help attract other conservatives as the legislation moves forward.

Judiciary members have heaped praise on Hatch as they have accepted his ideas on science and technology education, marijuana grown on federal lands and a pilot program fingerprinting foreign nationals as they fly home.

But Hatch is pinning his vote to the high-pressure fight between technology companies and labor unions, and he’s clearly on the side of the tech industry.

The legislation would boost the number of temporary H-1B visas from 65,000 to 110,000 and eventually to 180,000, depending on economic conditions. Hatch has fought to boost that number as high as 310,000 and, more important, he wants to make it easier for companies to qualify for those visas, arguing that added hurdles would only encourage companies to send jobs overseas.

On the other side of the debate is Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., an original sponsor of the bill, and a longtime critic of the H-1B visa program. He has the support of the nation’s major unions, which worry that adding more high-skilled visas encourages companies to pluck cheaper foreign labor instead of employing U.S. citizens. Durbin supports the bill’s current language that requires companies to certify that they couldn’t find an American worker for a job.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has been negotiating with Hatch, and they hope to reach a deal as soon as Tuesday.

"I have high hopes that we’ll come up with something I can support," said Hatch, who believes most of the Republicans on the committee are ready to follow his lead.

Schumer will have a harder time swaying Durbin.

"He’s not going to be happy with it no matter what we do," Hatch said. "The question will be whether he will raise a big fuss about it."

The committee will not take up Hatch’s tax and health amendments, since that falls under the jurisdiction of another Senate panel.

That fight will take place on the Senate floor, where Hatch will try to ensure that unauthorized immigrants pay back taxes before earning a green card and wait five years after gaining legal status to receive benefits under the Affordable Care Act.

If the Senate rejects those amendments, Hatch said he’ll do what he can to defeat the legislation.

"They are all worthy amendments. They are not there to cause trouble," Hatch said. "I know how to cause trouble."

mcanham@sltrib.com

Twitter: @mattcanham

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