Obama's choice for DHS could flame tech visa battle

The person thought to be President-elect Barack Obama's leading choice to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) , Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, has been a strong advocate of increasing H-1B visas -- a stance that could turn out to be lightning-rod issue during her confirmation.

In testimony, speeches and in a letter sent last fall to congressional leaders, Napolitano, a two-term governor, has left a clear trail of support for increasing the H-1B visa cap to address what she has argued is a shortage of skilled workers.

Napolitano's consideration by Obama for the DHS post was widely reported today, although it has not been confirmed publicly. DHS oversees the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which manages the visa program.

Napolitano was one of 12 governors who sent a letter (download PDF) in September 2007 to congressional leaders in both parties urging a hike in the visa cap. "Until we are able to address this workforce shortage, we must recognize that foreign talent has a role to play in our ability to keep companies located in our state and country; and therefore, need to ensure the increase availability of temporary H-1B visas and permanent residency visas (green cards)," the governors wrote.

Those pushing the visa cap hike included California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and then- New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer .

Napolitano "is as rabid a supporter of H-1B as you are likely to find," said Rob Sanchez of Chandler, Ariz., a software engineer who publishes the Job Destruction Newsletter , which is focused on tech-related labor issues.

As head of DHS, Napolitano could not unilaterally raise the cap, which is now set at 85,000 -- a figure that includes 20,000 visas for advanced degree graduates. Congress sets the H-1B cap, but the head of DHS oversees how the program operates.

"Napolitano has publicly and repeatedly called for major H-1B expansion," said Ron Hira , an assistant professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and author of Outsourcing America , and "in that respect she is no friend of American IT workers." Hira said that Napolitano believes employers should have easier access to H-1Bs, "meaning she would try to streamline the application process even more."

In a speech at the National Press Club in February 2007, (download PDF) Napolitano, also indicated that she wants to make it easier for foreign graduates of U.S. schools to get green cards, bypassing the need H-1B visa in those cases. Napolitano believes that after they pass a background check, scientists and engineers "should have a green card stapled to their diplomas." If Obama pushes ahead with her nomination and if she is confirmed, one thing Napolitano will have to deal with at USCIS are abuses in the H-1B program . As many as one in five H-1B petitions had problems, including fraud, according to a study recently released by the USCIS.

Arizona had been using offshore call centers to provides services to welfare recipients, but Napolitano ended the practice in 2004. A TV news report looked at the practice; an annotated copy of that report is archived on the Job Destruction site (Link to video) .

For the most part, Obama is bringing in a team that has forcefully advocated for increasing the use of foreign tech workers. The recession has not blunted that advocacy. Google CEO Eric Schmidt , in a speech last week in Washington, D.C., said the current policy of forcing foreign students unable to get a visa to go back home is "bizarre, it's disgusting."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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