Gates in DC as new H-1B battle shapes up

He will testify before Congress on boosting U.S. competitiveness

WASHINGTON -- If there was ever a David vs. Goliath fight in Washington, it's the battle over the H-1B visa program. Opponents, who see themselves as something akin to grass-roots organizers, are up against some big names, including President George W. Bush, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates.

Gates is slated to appear before the Senate Committee Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, which is holding a hearing on "Strengthening American Competitiveness for the 21st Century" -- a topic that lends itself to issues important to Gates, including secondary education and H-1B visas. The chair of that Senate committee is Kennedy, who has also supported the H-1B program.

Kennedy is now working with McCain on an immigration reform package that's expected to recommend H-1B cap increases. McCain, during the Silicon Valley Leadership Group's 2006 Annual Public Policy Luncheon, made his support for a higher visa cap clear.

On April 1, the U.S. will begin accepting H-1B visa applications for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, and it's expected that those application slots will disappear in a matter of just a few months. There's a 65,000 cap on the number of visas issued, although foreign nationals who earn an advanced degree at a U.S. university are eligible for one of another 20,000 visas. Demand for the visas is expected to be high, especially given that the cap has been as high as 195,000 in previous years.

John Miano, founder of the Summit, N.J.-based Programmers Guild -- an opponent of H-1B who has testified in the Senate on program -- believes Gates will have more influence than Bush on this issue. To the president, Miano said, "H-1B is just a footnote" of an issue.

The Senate has been, at least in recent years, more supportive of the H-1B program than the House of Representatives. And that's where the real battle will be, Miano said in an e-mail. "To my knowledge, the Senate has never even invited strong opponents of the H-1B program to any hearing held since 1998. In the entire history of the H-1B program, the Senate has never offered anything that has pretended to be reform of the H-1B program."

Gates' testimony was likely telegraphed in an op-ed piece published in the Washington Post Feb. 25. In it, Gates argued that tech-related employment is growing even as studies show that there is a dramatic decline in the number of students graduating with computer science degrees. Gates argued that the U.S. isn't producing enough graduates to fill open technical positions.

In the Senate, newly elected Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) was tapped to give the Democratic response to the State of the Union in January, and he spoke about disappearing manufacturing and white-collar jobs. These workers "expect, rightly, that in this age of globalization, their government has a duty to insist that their concerns be dealt with fairly in the international marketplace," said Webb, whose views are in sharp contrast to Gates'.

One aspect of the H-1B issue is a push to reform the system used to regulate it. Opponents have argued that the system makes it too easy for employers to pay less than the prevailing wage, as well as hire foreign workers without making an earnest effort to fill a job with citizens. Both sides want green card reform to make it easier for skilled workers to remain in this country instead of relying on temporary H-1B guest worker program.

"More and more members of Congress are becoming aware of the serious flaws in the H-1B program," said Ron Hira, assistant professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

Hira said that grass-roots groups seeking reforms don't have the money or celebrity support that can turn attention to their concerns. But what they lack in money can be offset to some extent in numbers and effort, he said.

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