House bill seeks to more than double H-1B visa cap

Immigration reform measure also would remove limits on advanced degree holders

Legislation seeking to hike the federal government's annual cap on H-1B visas from the current limit of 65,000 to as many as 180,000 was introduced in the U.S. House today, in what likely will be the start of another push in Congress to allow more technology workers into the U.S.

The H-1B proposal, which is part of a wider immigration reform bill co-sponsored by Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), also would do more than raise the visa cap. The measure seeks to remove all limits on issuing visas to foreign nationals who have advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math from U.S. universities.

Advanced degree holders can already be issued visas on top of the regular H-1B cap, but the number of extra visas made available for them is limited to 20,000 in a single government fiscal year.

In addition, the legislation would exempt foreign workers with "extraordinary ability" in certain areas, including science and business, from some of the requirements for obtaining green cards that give them permanent residency status in the U.S. That provision is aimed at making it easier for such workers to obtain the cards.

Other bills related to the guest worker program may also be introduced in the House this year, and Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) have been working on an immigration reform bill of their own.

The Gutierrez-Flake bill is called the STRIVE Act of 2007, for Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy. If approved, it would increase the H-1B visa cap to 115,000 per fiscal year. And if that limit was reached, the bill would allow for automatic increases to as much as 180,000 visas based on market demand.

High-tech companies and trade groups have been pushing Congress to increase the H-1B cap for the past two years. Earlier this month, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates testified before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, as the sole witness at a hearing on U.S. competitiveness, and called for an increase in the H-1B cap and an expedited green card process for highly skilled workers.

Compete America, a Washington-based group that includes IT vendors, trade associations and universities and is lobbying for an H-1B cap increase, today praised the visa-related provisions in the legislation introduced by Gutierrez and Flake.

Robert Hoffman, vice president of government and public affairs at Oracle Corp. and co-chairman of Compete America, said in a statement that the H-1B cap for fiscal 2008, which doesn't start until October, is likely to be reached next month. In light of that, "and with multiyear backlogs in all employment-based visa categories growing, it is imperative that meaningful reform occur this year," Hoffman said.

But opponents argue that the H-1B program is loosely regulated and that the visas are being used to push down the wages of U.S. workers and help facilitate the offshore outsourcing of tech jobs. However, some H-1B opponents may support efforts to make it easier for foreign workers to get green cards.

Both Flake and Gutierrez are members of the House Judiciary Committee, which means that their bill will at least get a hearing before that panel. The H-1B provisions are very similar to the ones that were included in last year's so-called SKIL Bill, which was formally known as the Securing Knowledge, Innovation and Leadership Act. That measure also proposed raising the cap to 115,000 visas, and it included an automatic 20% increase if the cap was reached.

But the bill drew a lot of criticism from H-1B opponents because, in addition to increasing the cap, it wouldn't have done anything to reform the visa program. It became entangled in the wider immigration debate and wasn't adopted.

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