Hatch wants White House to seek H-1B expansion

Treasury secretary says he agrees with Hatch on need to increase H-1B visa program

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) berated the White House on Wednesday for failing to urge expansion of the H-1B program.

Hatch, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Finance, raised his concern at a committee hearing on President Obama's proposed 2012 federal budget. U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was its sole witness.

One of the things that would "help our country a great deal is to expand the H-1B and allow these Ph.D.s who are educated here who want to stay here, who are brilliant, who can help us in the high-tech world and other worlds, to stay here," Hatch told Geithner.

"It's ridiculous that the administration doesn't weigh in on [H-1B], and I know why they don't -- but it's ridiculous not to," Hatch said, "And we've now created real competitors in India and China, just to mention two places, but others as well. "

In China, but especially in India, the H-1B visa is critical to offshore outsourcing companies in providing overseas services. These companies were critical of the Senate last year for approving a $2,000 visa fee increase specifically aimed at them. U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who sought the fee increase, said the H-1B program has created "multinational temp agencies."

"We are not doing things that we really ought to do to get competitive," Hatch said. "Weigh in on this H-1B thing. That would help us a great deal."

In response, Geithner said, "I agree with you on H-1B, by the way. It's just a question about how best to do it."

Hatch quickly answered, "Expand it."

The U.S. issues 85,000 H-1B visas each year, of which 20,000 are reserved for advanced-degree graduates of U.S. universities.

The Obama administration has said little about the H-1B program specifically, but in his State of the Union address last month, he urged an easier path to immigration for foreign students who graduate with advanced degrees from U.S. institutions.

Legislation to accomplish that may soon emerge from U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). Lofgren drafted a proposal that would create a new employment-based permanent residency, or green card, category for advanced-degree graduates. It would bypass the need for an H-1B visa.

Two other senators, Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), want to limit the number of H-1B or L-1 visas to 50% of a company's U.S. workforce, the so-called 50/50 rule.

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.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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