Senate immigration bill raises H-1B limit

Annual cap would increase from 65,000 to 115,000

 WASHINGTON (05/30/2006) - Flying mostly under the radar in a controversial immigration reform bill that passed the U.S. Senate last week was a provision that would raise the cap on the number of high-skilled foreign workers allowed into the U.S.

Some technology companies praised the wide-ranging immigration bill, which passed the Senate Thursday, because it would raise the cap on the hotly debated H-1B program, often used by U.S. technology companies to hire foreign IT workers. The bill would increase the annual H-1B cap from 65,000 to 115,000, but many Republicans in the House of Representatives have criticized other provisions in the bill, saying it's too soft on illegal immigration.

In passing the bill, the Senate took a "critical step forward in its important work to ensure that our nation remains the global leader in technology innovation," said Bill Gates, Microsoft Corp.'s chairman and chief software architect, in a statement. Gates and other technology leaders have called for a higher cap on H-1B visas, saying many companies cannot find enough U.S. workers with specialized tech skills.

The number of applications for H-1Bs for the federal government's fiscal year 2006 hit the cap in August 2005, a month and a half before the fiscal year began.

But a group representing U.S. IT workers questioned the need for more H-1B visas. The program is full of abuses, with many companies not paying the required prevailing wage for H-1B workers, said Ron Hira, vice president for career activities at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA (IEEE-USA).

"The program is basically broken and can be easily manipulated," Hira said. "Until it's fixed, it makes no sense to increase the cap."

In 2005, the U.S Office of Management and Budget said the H-1B program is "vulnerable to fraud and abuse" because the U.S. Department of Labor has limited means to check the wages paid to H-1B workers, Hira noted.

IEEE-USA has also said out-of-work U.S. IT workers should get the first shot at vacant tech jobs at U.S. companies.

But the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), a trade group for technology vendors, praised the Senate for including the H-1B provisions in the larger immigration bill. The bill, which would allow illegal immigrants a way to gain U.S citizenship or legal status, is opposed by many Republican lawmakers, and its future is uncertain. Although the bill passed 62-36 in the Senate, a majority of the chamber's Republicans opposed it.

The H-1B provisions could be a "bridge to compromise," said Ralph Hellman, ITI's senior vice president for government relations. Many Republicans support the H-1B increases, and those provisions could be part of a compromise package, he said.

Hellman dismissed arguments that an H-1B increase isn't needed. Opponents of the cap increase  "don't have a very strong standing in Congress," he said. "Quite frankly, we don't think they have the facts correct." 

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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