New Furor Over Visas Reaches Hill

Measure would curb L-1 program; H-1B cap decline approaches

Legislation introduced in Congress last week would curb the use of the controversial L-1 visa, which, like its better-known counterpart the H-1B visa, lets U.S. companies import foreign workers.

The proposal is the first move on IT-related visa issues in what may be a pivotal year for such legislation.

Unless Congress acts, the H-1B cap is due to drop from 195,000, its limit for the past three years, to 65,000 in October, the start of the 2004 fiscal year. But the L-1 visa, which has no cap, has become as controversial as the H-1B.

The L-1 program was designed to let companies with subsidiaries abroad transfer to the U.S. executives or workers who have specialized skills.

But critics contend that U.S. companies are using foreign outsourcing firms, known as "body shops," to import IT workers with L-1 visas and replace higher-paid employees. Last year, the government issued 57,700 L-1 visas.

In his bill, U.S. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) called the L-1 visa a "back door to cheap labor." The proposed legislation would require that employees be transferred from subsidiaries and not from third-party outsourcers.

But Mica's bill may face opposition from all sides.

Mike Emmons, an Orlando-based activist who said he lost his consulting job because of the L-1 visa, lobbied Mica heavily but said he's disappointed with the proposed fix.

Emmons said the legislation includes a large loophole that would let a U.S. company set up shop in another country, hire workers there and then move them to the U.S.

"This is a pretty minuscule bill," said Emmons.

But Vic Goel, a Greenbelt, Md.-based immigration attorney who represents high-tech companies, said the legislation could prevent multinational firms from bringing in foreign IT workers to help clients in the U.S. For instance, Goel said, foreign workers who played a key role in developing a particular program may be needed to implement, service and maintain the software.

"The idea is to find a solution that promotes business and closes the door on the abusers," said Goel. He added that such a solution could involve finding a way to differentiate "project-based [work] vs. simple provisioning of warm bodies to fill seats."

Holders of L-1 visas can work in the U.S. for up to seven years. H-1B visas let foreign workers take jobs in the U.S. for as long as six years.

There has been no move yet in Congress to raise the H-1B cap, but that issue will be discussed at some point by the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims, a committee spokesman said. Whether legislation will be introduced is "unclear at this time," he said.

The Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va., which pushed for a higher H-1B cap in years past, hasn't asked Congress to raise the planned new limit, said Harris Miller, the trade group's president.

Miller added that he suspects Congress won't want to take up the issue until employment rates in the U.S. improve.

The strategy of proponents for a higher cap may be to wait until the 65,000 limit is reached, sometime in 2004, before seeking any further increase, said Miller.

Roughly 79,000 H-1B visas were issued in the government's last fiscal year, well short of the 195,000 cap.

JUST THE FACTS
The L-1 Visa

NUMBERS: There are currently more than 325,000 L-1 visa holders in the U.S., up from 203,255 in 1998.

WHO CAN GET IT: The visa is intended to let companies transfer workers with specialized knowledge into the U.S.

PROBLEMS: Critics say the L-1 program is being abused and functions as a vehicle for displacing U.S. IT workers with cheap foreign labor.

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