Senate passes H-1B visa bill

The U.S. Senate voted today to increase the number of H-1B visas issued over the next three years by nearly 300,000. H-1B visas are temporary visas issued to foreign workers who come to the U.S. to work for a six-year term.

The American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act of 2000 (S2045), which will amend the Immigration and Nationality Act, was passed by a 96-1 vote. The bill, introduced by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), would raise the cap on H-1B visas for each of the next three years. Currently, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service issues 115,000 such visas per year, but under the new law, it would be able to issue an additional 85,000 in 2000, 87,500 in 2001 and 130,000 in 2002.

The bill would also increase the portability of the visas. Previously, holders of H-1B visas couldn't legally change jobs. The new act would remove this restriction and allow visa holders to remain in the U.S. during visa hearings, instead of being immediately deported to their home countries.

The lone "no" vote was cast by Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-South Carolina). Sen Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democratic candidate for vice president, and Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Diane Feinstein of California didn't vote.

The bill also had the support of congressmen attending a high-tech forum yesterday in Massachusetts.(see story)

The bill still must be grappled with in the House, which has two versions of its own.

High-tech industries have pushed for passage of the bill because they say they can't find enough qualified Americans to fill their employment vacancies.

Increasing the number of H-1B visas is "essential to our industry," said Marc Brailov, public communications director at the American Electronics Association (AEA), an industry trade group. The high-tech industry has been hindered by worker shortages, and this bill goes a long way toward relieving those shortages, Brailov said.

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