H-1B backers seek White House help for foreign students

Frustrated by lack of H-1B cap increase, supporters call for student-visa work extension

WASHINGTON — Stymied so far in their efforts to get Congress to allow more skilled foreign workers into the U.S., H-1B visa supporters are asking the Bush administration to extend the time that foreign graduates of U.S. universities can work on student visas from one year to 29 months.

The proposed extension is a stop-gap plan that wouldn't increase the federal government's cap on the number of H-1B visas that can be issued each year. But it would buy extra time for foreign students who graduate from college in the U.S. this year.

A foreign student needs a degree to qualify for an H-1B visa, but seniors who are graduating this spring won't have their degrees before next Tuesday — the day that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will begin accepting H-1B petitions for the government's 2009 fiscal year.

The USCIS may get more than enough applications for all of the available visas — 85,000 all told, including 20,000 set aside for people who hold advanced degrees from U.S. universities — on April 1 alone. That means upcoming graduates likely will have to wait until next year to apply. And if they don't succeed then in getting H-1B visas through the government's random lottery process, they could be forced to leave the U.S. under current student-visa rules.

Proponents of changing those rules say that increasing the amount of time a foreign graduate could work in the U.S., under a program referred to as Optional Practical Training, would give students a better chance of getting H-1B visas. In addition, the proposed change could be made administratively, without any legislative action. Supporters of the idea have been urging the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the USCIS, to approve the extension.

At a forum held here today, H-1B backers discussed their options and frustrations over the visa issue. Their frustrations are obvious; their options less so.

Robert Hoffman, vice president of government and public affairs at Oracle Corp. and co-chair of Compete America, the lobbying group that is spearheading the push for more visas, said the H-1B issue has been tied to broader immigration reform legislation. That includes difficult issues such as what to do about the 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S., and a comprehensive reform bill proposed last year in the Senate died a quick death.

"The message communicated to us is either all those things are addressed, or nothing is addressed," Hoffman said. That has dimmed the prospects for a separate bill to increase the H-1B cap, he added.

But one approach, potentially more middle road from a legislative perspective, may be to try to convince Congress to release for use H-1B visas that were authorized by lawmakers in previous years but not used. That could free up about 300,000 visas, according to H-1B advocates. They also would like to see similar relief offered under the government's green card, or permanent residency, program.

Victor Johnson, a senior adviser for public policy at NAFSA, a Washington-based association that promotes international education, said that universities are "recruiters and attracters of international students." Johnson added that higher education "functions as the pipeline for talent in the United States." But to succeed in attracting students, the U.S. has to have a supportive climate, "and that includes H-1B reform," he said.

Johnson said that if the H-1B and green card issues could be isolated in Congress and voted on solely on their own merits, "you could probably solve [them] very easily." He blamed the lack of progress on "the dysfunctionality of Congress lately."

The arguments that H-1B supporters make for expanding the number of visas are disputed by opponents, who claim to have seen a different side of the visa program — such as its alleged use by outsourcing companies to bring in foreign labor to fill jobs that eventually will be transferred overseas.

Any legislation that would increase the annual H-1B cap likely will also include proposed reforms seeking to curb how the visas are used. For instance, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has charged that the visa program is helping to displace U.S. workers and said that he will seek to attach reforms to any proposal to increase the cap.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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