Trade group urges more H-1B visas

WASHINGTON -- The demand for H-1B visas is growing at such a pace that the new crop of visas, due to be issued beginning Oct. 1 by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), may be exhausted by the start of the new year, according to the American Electronics Association, a Washington trade group representing high-tech companies.

The INS issues a new batch of visas every fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1, and the current cap of 115,000 visas was reached in March.

The INS has approved approximately 60,000 visas in advance of the new, lower cap of 107,500 visas that will soon take effect, said Thom Stohler, who studies workforce issues for the AEA. Speaking yesterday at a press conference held by the AEA to discuss technology-related legislation pending before Congress, Stohler said he expects the remaining 47,500 visas will be quickly gobbled up.

"It is a critical business issue for our member companies," Stohler said. "We need at least 200,000 visas given current demand."

Congress returned this week from its August recess but is due to adjourn in early October. High-tech groups are urging lawmakers to raise the H-1B cap, which allows skilled foreigners to work in the U.S. for up to six years. The group also wants Congress to establish permanent normal trade relations with China.

But not all agree on the need to raise the H-1B cap.

"The cap should be reduced," said Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis. Matloff has testified before Congress on the H-1B issue. "We are not using the people we have. Age discrimination is rampant in the industry, and even new grads are not fully used."

Matloff said that in surveys of his own students as well as information he gathers from other sources, fewer than half of the new computer-science graduates are able to get programming jobs. Many are put in customer support and software testing. "If the employers did not have access to the foreign labor pool, they would be forced to pay more attention to the older workers here," he said.

One thing Congress can do, said Dave Samuelson, president of Quest Systems Inc., an IT recruiting firm in Bethesda, Md., is issue H1-B visas to people with job skills in areas that have a high demand, such as Java and C++.

"There are areas in the computer field where people are chasing jobs, rather than jobs are chasing people," said Samuelson. One example is the IBM mainframe world. "There is a paucity of positions available in the IBM mainframe field for some people with experience in that area."

Samuelson added that high-tech companies have to do more to provide financial incentives for students seeking career training in high-tech areas.

One issue that Congress probably won't get to this year is significant privacy legislation. There just isn't enough time for Congress to act, predicted William Archey, the AEA's president and CEO. "They can't get to [it], they just can't."

Although there is bipartisan support for H-1B legislation, an agreement has been stalled over other, unrelated immigration issues being sought by Democrats.

One H-1B bill that the AEA backs, sponsored by Sens. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), would raise the cap to 195,000 through next year. The bill would also allow companies to hire recent foreign graduates of U.S. universities, but they wouldn't be counted as part of the H-1B limit.

"We educate all these students in the U.S. and we're not given the opportunity to hire them," Stohler said.

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