U.S. Immigration Reform Bill Could Pass by July

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A U.S. congressman who chairs a House Judiciary subcommittee says Congress could pass an immigration reform bill by July, including lifting the limit on how many high-tech engineers can come to the U.S. for jobs.

Representative Howard Berman, a Democrat from California, made the prediction while speaking at the first ever Tech Industry Summit in San Jose, California.

"It could pass both houses by July, go to conference and could be on the president's desk by September," Berman said.

Immigration reform deals largely with the 12 million illegal immigrants living and working in the U.S., but another provision of the bill affects technology companies in particular.

Tech companies want the limit on H1-B visas raised to 115,000 per year, from 65,000, a limit that has already been reached for 2007. H1-B is the type of visa granted to skilled foreign workers in "specialty occupations," including IT, so that they can work in the U.S.

"There is significant urgency on this issue," said Pamela Passman, vice president of global corporate affairs for Microsoft Corp., also speaking at the summit.

About half the students enrolled in engineering schools in the U.S. are foreign nationals, Passman said, who have to return to their home countries after earning their degrees, depriving U.S. companies of the chance to hire them.

Republican President George W. Bush proposed a guest worker program for illegal immigrants but opposition from within his own party kept the legislation from passing in 2006. Now, with Democrats in control of both houses of Congress, and Democrats generally endorsing the guest worker program, passage is more likely, Berman said.

Berman is chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, which will be considering patent reform legislation.

Tech companies have long complained about people who buy up patents just to collect license fees, but many small inventors own patents and don't have the means to bring the patented products to market, so they license the patents to others. Reform is also expected to focus on the quality of patents granted. Tech groups have pushed for better funding for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and a post-patent review process as a way to challenge patents that may not be deserved.

"I think determining validity and infringement could be settled more quickly in a nonfederal court system environment," said Berman.

The Tech Policy Summit is expected to draw 300 people to Silicon Valley, including technology industry figures, organizers of technology lobbying groups in Washington, D.C., and lawmakers.

Technology companies had not been active in lobbying the federal government 20 years ago, but have been forced to get involved as Internet related issues such as privacy protection, cybersecurity and intellectual property disputes have emerged, said Gary Fazzino, vice president of governmental affairs at Hewlett-Packard Co.

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