WASHINGTON - Sen. Amy Klobuchar's push to grant more temporary employment visas to foreigners with technical skills has put her in the middle of a fierce immigration battle over high-paying American jobs.

The debate centers on whether there are enough Americans with skills in science, technology, engineering and math -- a cluster known as STEM. Many companies say they can't find the talent they need here.

"People get very heated," said Neil Ruiz, co-author of a 2012 report on employment visas for the Brookings Institution. "The controversy is: Do we have people ready to take these jobs?"

Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, has introduced a bill that would increase the number of visas available under the H-1B program by tens of thousands per year.

She said a shortage of Americans qualified for STEM jobs hurts the United States in the global economy. Immigration restrictions drive high-skilled workers, many of them educated in the United States, to other countries, she said.

"Facebook wanted to hire a bunch of engineers to come over," Klobuchar said. "The H-1B visas had reached the cap after only a few weeks. So they ended up having to open an office in Dublin with 80 engineers. The fear is we literally are creating jobs in other countries."

Employers and educators are mixed in their assessment of the need to use temporary foreign workers to make up for a shortage of Americans trained in science and engineering.

Tom Grones, founder of public safety software company Geo-Comm in St. Cloud, hires international students as interns. But he does not try to get employment visas for them because he sees no need "to provide a wider international pool of people on temporary visas."

"We have found plenty of excellent knowledge workers in central Minnesota," Grones said.

Ron Jensen of Rochester, past president of IEEE-USA, an association that keeps job skills up to date for more than 200,000 tech workers nationwide, says adding temporary visas will eventually ship "good paying jobs in the U.S." to other countries.

IEEE-USA argues that in 2011 two-thirds of the visas in Minnesota went to outsourcing companies that train workers here but could ultimately move the work elsewhere.

Wipro, an Indian information technology company with operations in Bloomington, requested more visas than any other Minnesota business in 2011. Wipro did not respond to a request for comment.

Deloitte Services, a consulting company that is one of Minnesota's top employers of H-1B visa workers, said Klobuchar's bill, which increases funding for STEM training while allowing more foreign workers, "addresses critical short- and long-term challenges."

Skills mismatch

Despite statewide efforts to recruit Minnesotans for STEM programs, St. Cloud State University President Earl Potter said the state is "not getting the numbers out of our [kindergarten to 12th grade] system."

With 1,300 foreign students in a student body of 17,000, St. Cloud State has one of the country's highest concentrations of foreign students. Most of them are packed into graduate programs for engineering and science, Potter said.

Some employers, meanwhile, tell him they can't find enough highly trained tech workers. "Show me a person with a masters in computer science and five years experience and he's got a job," Potter said. "What I get is a guy laid off from a paper mill. There's a disconnect in skills."

Klobuchar's bill would use visa fees to fund $3 billion in U.S. STEM education in the next decade. She also said she and other senators are tweaking their immigration package to include better "auditing."

Companies where H-1B visa holders make up more than half the workforce "is where these abuses have taken place," Klobuchar said. "You have to show that you have looked for American workers. The issue is: How do you enforce that?"

Klobuchar said her proposal aims to make more H-1B visas available to medium and small employers who often get left out because bigger companies quickly snap up the available visa supply.

The bill also allows the government to issue hundreds of thousands of green cards that were approved in the past, but not used, and allows unused green cards in future years to be rolled over to the next year.

Finally, it increases the number of green cards available to foreign workers and their families and provides what the senator calls symbolically "stapling a green card to the diplomas" of foreign students who get advanced STEM degrees at U.S. colleges and universities.

Demand for talent

Potter believes the shortfall of American engineering and science students "will not be fixed anytime soon."

That leaves employers like Ryan Weber relying on foreign employees to fill out his technical workforce. A decade ago, Weber, a 33-year-old St. Cloud State graduate, founded W3i, an interactive advertising business in Sartell, with two brothers.

Weber's computer science classmates at St. Cloud were "50-50 domestic and international." Today, 10 to 15 members of his 150-person workforce are foreign workers.

"If we don't take them, plenty of other countries will," Weber said. "It was very clear to me that to build a business the only thing that matters is talent. There's not enough experienced tech employees in the state. It's worse in the big metro areas."

Officials at the IEEE-USA don't dispute the shortage. But they claim the answer is issuing more green cards to grant permanent resident status to foreign workers, not passing out more temporary visas.

H-1B visas essentially bind foreign workers to a company for three years and a possible three-year extension. Meanwhile, waits for green cards can easily stretch to a decade.

The IEEE-USA insists that increasing the number of H-1B visas as proposed will just make that wait longer for those foreign workers who want to stay while helping companies that intend to eventually send their visa holders and their high-paying jobs abroad.

Chris Fuller, a Twin Cities radio frequency engineer, worries that more visas will lead to more situations like the one he experienced when he recommended an experienced American engineer for a job at a Minnesota med tech company where he used to work.

"They never even bothered to call him" before hiring an H-1B worker, said Fuller. "I thought if there was a qualified U.S. national, they would have to consider him."

Jim Spencer • 202-383-6123