H-1B cap change sought by key congressman

House Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith would limit visas to fewer professions; IEEE backs boost in green card availability

WASHINGTON - A top Republican lawmaker, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Thursday said the H-1B visa plays a "vital role" in the economy and thus its cap should be increased.

But Smith, perhaps recognizing the difficulties of raising the contentious visa cap, offered an alternative that would make more H-1B visas available to tech firms while cutting the number of professions that could apply for the visas.

About half of all H-1B visas are used by technology companies, but there's a long list of other industries that use it as well, to hire fashion models, pastry chefs, dancers, social workers and photographers, Smith said.

Smith said he's "not sure" whether some of those non-tech occupations "are as crucial to our success in the global economy as are computer scientists."

He suggested that some of the occupations no longer be eligible for H-1B status, which would potentially increase the number of visas that would be available to tech firms.

"If Congress doesn't act to increase the H-1B cap, we may need to examine what sort of workers should qualify for the H-1B visa," Smith said at a hearing Thursday before the House Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement.

The committee's hearing on the H-1B visa included talk of expanding the use of green cards, particularly for foreign advanced degree graduates of U.S. universities, as an alternative to H-1B visas. President Barack Obama has signaled he would amenable to such a change in his State of Union address.

But no bill on changing visa policies that could win approval has emerged. Previous sessions of Congress have blocked piecemeal approaches to the H-1B visa pending debate on comprehensive immigration reform. It remains unclear whether the current Congress feels the same way.

The H-1B visa cap is set at 85,000, with 20,000 earmarked for foreign students who graduate from a U.S. university with an advanced degree. Although there remains interest in increasing the cap, the major push recently has been to make it easier for foreign students to get a Green Card.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE-USA) supports expanding the green card program, a position outlined by Bruce Morrison, a former Democratic U.S. representative from Connecticut who played a key role in drafting the H-1B law in 1990.

Morrison testified on behalf of the IEEE at the hearing.

"We are not enforcing H-1B regulations now as a county, we never really have, and despite the best efforts of USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service) and the Department of Labor. I doubt that we ever will," said Morrison.

But green cards don't need all the regulatory protections of H-1B workers, because as permanent residents they "have the power of the marketplace, and employers don't have any special advantage over green card workers because they are just like American citizens -- they can pick up and leave anytime they want," he said.

"H-1B is a surrender to regulation when the market will solve the problem," said Morrison.

U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), has been working on legislation that would expand Green Card usage, but also include some protections for U.S. workers from displacement by H-1B employees.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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