H-1B visa cap increase sought in immigration bill

The new H-1B visa application period begins April 1

A wide-ranging immigration-reform bill now being debated by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee would, if passed and signed into law, increase the H-1B visa cap from 65,000 to 115,000 and ease the permanent residency process for some foreign nationals with advanced degrees.

The 300-page bill, called the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, affects many aspects of immigration policy and security. And because the bill is so comprehensive and controversial, according to people on both sides of the issue, its fate doesn’t rest solely on the H-1B visa issue. The bill could reach the Senate for a vote by the end of the month.

If the measure fails, H-1B proponents will try to get an increase added to some other bill, said Sandra Boyd, chairwoman of Compete America, a Washington-based group of businesses, industry groups and universities supporting a visa-cap increase, as well as green-card reforms that could speed up the permanent residency process. “We will continue to press on these issues,” said Boyd.

On April 1, the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services will begin accepting applications for H-1B applications for the 2007 federal fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

Last year, the immigration bureau cut off new applications in August after reaching the 65,000-visa limit now in place. That was the earliest date the cap has been reached. Vic Goel, an immigration attorney in Reston, Va., said he believes that visas will disappear at a similar pace this year -- if not faster.

“People have been waiting for the filing date to reopen, so certainly there is going to be some pent-up demand, without question,” said Goel.

The 65,000-visa cap doesn’t include another 20,000 H-1B visas issued to advanced degree holders. The Senate immigration bill would eliminate the cap for these workers, and once the 115,000 cap is reached, there are provisions for an automatic increase.

Any H-1B cap increase is opposed by Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. -- USA (IEEE-USA), which instead supports efforts to make it easier for foreign workers to gain permanent residency. One provision in the legislation is to create a new student visa that leads to a green card.

Ralph Wyndrum, president of the IEEE-USA, said H-1B visas are abused and visa holders are often treated like indentured servants, working at lower pay and benefits. They also risk losing their employer’s support for permanent residency if they push for improvements.

Raising the cap to 115,000 “is just making a bad situation worse,” he said.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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