Bill would double cap on H-1B visas

A bill introduced in the U.S. Congress would double the number of immigrant worker visas available each year under the H-1B program, earning the legislation praise from Microsoft.

The Innovation Employment Act, introduced by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, (D-Ariz.), late Thursday, would increase the cap in H-1B visas from 65,000 a year to 130,000 a year. In addition, there would be no cap on H-1B applications for foreign graduate students attending U.S. colleges and studying science, technology and related fields. Currently, there's a 20,000-a-year cap on visas for graduate students in all fields.

The legislation would increase the H-1B cap to 180,000 in the years 2010 to 2015 if the 130,000 cap is reached the year before.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates called for an increase in the H-1B visa cap while testifying before the House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee Wednesday. In recent years, the H-1B cap has been filled days -- or even the same day -- after the government opened the application period.

"We provide the world's best universities ... and the students are not allowed to stay and work in the country," Gates said Wednesday. "The fact is, [other countries'] smartest people want to come here and that's a huge advantage to us, and in a sense, we're turning them away."

Microsoft praised Giffords' bill. The legislation "would boost America's competitiveness by giving U.S. employers the flexibility they need to hire the best talent available to fill a severe shortage of qualified U.S. high-skilled workers," Jack Krumholtz, management director of federal government affairs for Microsoft, said in a statement. The bill would also increase U.S. jobs; Microsoft hires an additional four people to support each H-1B worker, Krumholtz said.

The U.S. government will begin accepting visa applications for next year in April, and Microsoft predicted the cap would be filled the same day, as it was in 2007. "The current system effectively prevents American companies from hiring this year's foreign-born university graduates," Krumholtz added.

The Giffords' bill would also increase penalties for H-1B fraud and allows the U.S. Department of Labor to reject H-1B applications for "clear indicators of fraud," in addition the current rule of rejecting only applications that are inaccurate or incomplete. The bill puts important safeguards on the H-1B program in place, said C.J. Karamargin, a spokesman for Giffords.

The bill would prohibit companies from hiring H-1B workers, then outsourcing them to other companies, he said. H-1B opponents have complained that outsourcing companies are among the top users of H-1B visas.

The would also prohibit companies with more than 50 employees that have more than half of their staff as H-1B workers from hiring more H-1Bs, and it would prohibit employers from advertising jobs as available only to H-1B workers, Karamargin said. "The bill would put some teeth in the Department of Labor's oversight role" of the program, he said.

Giffords sees the importance of H-1Bs because Southern Arizona has been growing as a hub for tech companies, Karamargin added. "There's a need to stay competitive and keep the momentum growing," he added. "That means making sure the talent is available to drive the local and national tech economy."

But despite some attempts at addressing H-1B fraud, Giffords' bill would do little to address worker concerns about the program, said Ron Hira, a public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and former chairman of the Career and Workforce Policy Committee at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA (IEEE-USA).

"This bill takes none of the concerns raised by American technology workers seriously," Hira said. He called the bill a "massive" increase in the H-1B cap.

"This bill will basically do nothing to stem employers from using the H-1B program as a source of cheap labor and to substitute for American workers," Hira said. "It doesn't require any kind of labor market test -- demonstrating that a shortage actually exists before hiring an H-1B."

The bill doesn't fix "serious problems" in setting wage floors for H-1B workers, Hira added. "No matter how one dresses up this bill, it would do nothing to curb the practice of companies bringing in computer programmers for $12 per hour to displace U.S. workers," he said. "If this bill were to be passed as written, it would do serious damage to the American information technology labor market, displacing many American workers, discouraging the next generation of students from entering the career, and speed up the offshoring of high-wage high-technology jobs."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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