Gates to appear again before Congress on eve of H-1B visa rush

For second straight year, Microsoft exec will testify weeks before application process begins

Next week, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates will testify before the House Committee on Science and Technology at a hearing "on the future of innovation and U.S. competitiveness," at which he likely will renew his appeal for more foreign workers to be allowed into the country.

The topic of the hearing is familiar ground for Gates on Capitol Hill. But what makes his scheduled appearance on March 12 potentially explosive is its timing, less than three weeks before the start of the annual application rush for H-1B visas.

April 1 is the first day that U.S. immigration authorities will begin accepting H-1B applications for the federal government's 2009 fiscal year, which begins in October. Last year, the government stopped taking applications after receiving about 150,000 in a single day — far more than enough to exhaust the annual cap of 65,000 regular visas and 20,000 set aside for foreign nationals who have advanced degrees from U.S. universities.

Last month, Gates called the H-1B program "a disaster," in response to a question about immigration during a talk he gave at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. "If I could just change one law in the U.S., it would be this," Gates said. An excerpt featuring that comment has been posted on YouTube, and a video of the full speech can be viewed on the university's Web site.

Gates testified last March before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, warning that the U.S. was risking its global leadership role because of insufficient investments in research and education, as well as the problems that companies face in hiring foreign workers.

In his written testimony, Gates predicted — accurately — that for the first time in the history of the H-1B program, the supply of visas would run out before students graduating from college received their degrees. "This means that U.S. employers will not be able to get H-1B visas for an entire crop of U.S. graduates," he wrote. "We are essentially asking top talent to leave the U.S."

It remains to be seen how well Gates' message on immigration will play this year, amid slowing economic growth and rising unemployment.

But Robert Hoffman, an Oracle Corp. executive who is co-chairman of Compete America, a Washington-based group that lobbies for immigration reform, said that the demand for H-1B workers among U.S. companies continues unabated. "The expectation is that you are going to see an even bigger flood of applications than what we saw last year," he said.

Asked about the slowing economy, Hoffman said, "If you want to talk about not helping the economy — if there is a job opening that is going unfilled in this economy and that we are prepared to fill, we should fill it because that is a person contributing to the economy."

The political pressure to raise the H-1B cap, or to shrink it, also is ongoing, but people on both sides of the issue are cautious about predicting that any legislation will find its way out of Congress during an election year.

"I'm not at all convinced that we've won the battle for this year," said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, an immigration advocacy group that opposes efforts to increase the H-1B cap. But Beck added that he thinks the Arlington, Va.-based group has helped to create "enough counterweight" to challenge the cap-increase proposals.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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