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Congress May Bear Brunt of H-1B Anger

Grass-roots objections to visa program conflict with lobbyist efforts to raise cap

August 19, 2002 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Washington

When IT companies announce layoffs, Rob Sanchez, an unemployed programmer who says he lost his job because of the H-1B visa program, usually sees a traffic spike from the downsizing company's domain on his Web site,

Sanchez says visitors to his Web site are checking to see if their company is using H-1B workers. Using federal Freedom of Information Act requests, Sanchez has built an online database of approximately 1.1 million "labor condition applications" that list the firms using H-1B employees, the number of those employees, their job types and their pay.

Sanchez is just one of many people unhappy with the H-1B program, and he's fighting it with data. Another is Linda Evans, a woman in North Carolina who writes letters to elected federal officials. She said her husband, a longtime IT worker, was laid off because of the H-1B program. "People are mad," she said.

The power of this grass-roots anger may well be tested in the next congressional session, which begins in January, if an expected push by high-tech lobbying groups to reverse a planned lowering of the H-1B cap materializes. But so far, the economic downturn has kept H-1B applications well short of this year's 195,000 cap.

Federal immigration authorities last week reported that they had granted 60,500 H-1B visas by the end of the third quarter of the government's fiscal year on June 30, representing a 54% drop from the same period last year. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) isn't forecasting a total for this year but has approximately 18,500 pending applications. And although the cap wasn't reached last year, the number of H-1B visas issued still represented a record number for what has been a controversial program.

Under pressure from high-tech lobbying, Congress raised the cap from 115,000 to 195,000 in fiscal 2000. It will remain at 195,000 during 2003 but is slated to be cut to 65,000 in 2004.

High-tech groups are expected to begin lobbying Congress next year to increase the 65,000 cap, but the ongoing demand shortfalls could make that effort difficult, said Lynn Shotwell, director of government relations at the American Council of International Personnel Inc. in Washington.

But "I would hate to see us put ourselves in a situation where the cap goes back down to 65,000 and the economy heats up, and suddenly you can't get workers in that you need," she added.

However, IEEE-USA, a unit of the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers Inc. in Washington, maintains that the H-1B program is responsible for the fates of some of the 180,000 computer scientists and electrical engineers it says are unemployed. At that level, "it seems difficult to make the case that the higher cap needs to be extended," said IEEE Vice President John Steadman.

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