Legislation would nearly double H-1B visa limit

Draft legislation before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee would allow IT vendors and other companies to nearly double the number of foreign workers they bring to the U.S. by "recapturing" unused worker visas from past years.

The draft legislation would increase the number of skilled foreign workers U.S. companies can bring to the U.S. under the controversial H-1B visa program. By recapturing unused H-1B visas from years going back to the early '90s, U.S. companies could bring in up to 60,000 more foreign workers this fiscal year.

The 65,000 cap for H-1B visa applications in the U.S. government's fiscal year 2006 was reached about two months before the new fiscal year began on Oct. 1. Congress allowed 195,000 H-1B visas in the government's fiscal year 2003, but then let the cap fall back to its pre-dot-com boom level of 65,000.

The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) and the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI), both IT trade groups, have voiced support for the draft bill, which would be part of a 2006 federal budget legislative package. The Judiciary Committee is expected to debate budget items in a Thursday hearing.

The U.S. economy has picked up since the early part of the decade, but the H-1B cap hasn't kept pace, said ITI, which counts Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp. among its members.

"The cap is set at a fairly arbitrary number that doesn't reconsider the economic cycle," said Kara Calvert, ITI's director of government relations.

The U.S. economy is "dramatically stronger" than it was two years ago, said ITAA President Harris Miller, in a statement. "Using visa numbers that were not used in past years, especially during economic slowdowns, makes good economic sense, good business sense and good common sense for growing jobs and companies in this country," he said.

The proposal includes a US$500 fee increase, to $3,685, for an H-1B application, commonly paid by the hiring company. ITI supports the increased fees if the cap is raised, Calvert said.

"Our companies ... need the highly skilled workers in order to grow their businesses," she said. "When they grow their businesses, they can afford to pay the fees."

But the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA (IEEE-USA), representing U.S. IT workers, opposes an increase in the H-1B cap. In addition to the 65,000 visas allowed under the cap, Congress in November exempted an additional 20,000 visas for graduate students, noted Chris McManes, an IEEE-USA spokesman.

"This [increase] would be on top of the 20,000 visas that are available to graduates of U.S. institutions with a master's or doctorate degree," McManes said. "So IEEE-USA is against this proposal."

IEEE-USA has said the H-1B program takes jobs away from U.S. workers. U.S. IT and electrotechnology professionals saw a 1.5 percent decrease in their salaries in 2003, the first decrease since IEEE-USA began surveying members in 1972, the group said in December. IEEE-USA blamed H-1B visas, outsourcing and other factors for the salary decrease.


Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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