Election Politics Stall H-1B Hike

If cap not raised, work may move offshore

The effort to increase the limit on high-tech work visas has been caught in the middle of a contentious election-year battle over immigration issues.

If Congress doesn't raise the H-1B visa cap before it adjourns on Oct. 6, the new crop of visas will disappear by January, said Tom Stohler, who studies workforce issues for the American Electronics Association. The current cap of 115,000 is set to drop to 107,500 on Oct. 1. "It is a critical business issue for our member companies," said Stohler. "We need at least 200,000 visas, given current demand."

Republicans say Democrats are to blame for the problems in approving the H-1B visa cap because they have been linking the cap increase to unrelated legislation that would legalize immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti who fled political problems in those countries. The Republicans say that they want to adopt H-1B without any amendments. The Democrats are willing to do that, provided they get floor time to champion the immigration issue. The Republicans have been balking at giving them that opportunity.

If Congress doesn't approve the increase this year, H-1B advocates will find it even more difficult to make their case for fiscal 2002, said Liz Stern, an immigration attorney at Shaw Pittman in Washington. Moreover, fiscal 2002's cap of 65,000 is about half that of fiscal 2000, so there's a good chance employers will exhaust the limit within the first month, she said.

John Kendzior, who handles recruiting for Harvard University's information technology staff of 750 employees, said the need for H-1B visas is "a symptom of more fundamental issues of preparing domestic talent for the industry," adding that the U.S. has "to give serious thought" to longer-term investment of preparing its own workforce.

A lot of older programmers with basic skills can't get jobs because they don't have training in the newer, programming languages such as Visual Basic and C++, said Larry Young, information systems director at International Environmental Corp. in Oklahoma City, a maker of air conditioning components. "Companies appear to be unwilling to pay the cost to bring those older programmers up to the [necessary] skill levels," said Young. But they may lose whatever they save on training because they may have to spend more on hiring, he said.

Some groups say employers are in fact spending enough on training. According to the Employment Policy Foundation (EPF), a think tank based in Washington, the private sector spends approximately $300 billion on training of all types, through education reimbursements, mentoring and on-the-job development programs. But in spite of these efforts, some skill needs aren't being met.

If Congress decides not to raise the cap, companies will move more work offshore, said Sue Richard, a spokesperson for Intel Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif.

More than one-third of 42 Fortune 500 companies surveyed by EPF said they would move jobs out of the U.S. if H-1B workers weren't available. And 45% said the cap restricted them from hiring the people they needed.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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