Push on H-1B Visas Draws Elbows on Capitol Hill

Push on H-1B Visas Draws Elbows on Capitol Hill

By Jennifer Freer, Staff Writer

Congress is expected to approve an increase in H-1B visas that allow skilled foreign professionals to fill high-tech job openings, but proposals for new restrictions on companies using the visas has aroused opposition from the technology community and extended the debate on the legislation.

Of two bills introduced in the House this year, legislation proposed by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, is considered most likely to pass. The Smith bill, called the Technology Worker Temporary Relief Act, would eliminate for two years the cap on H-1B visas, which stands at 115,000. The bill would take effect in fiscal 2001.

But Smith, who questions whether a labor shortage of skilled U.S. workers really exists, also included in his bill a number of restrictions aimed at ensuring that American workers are not passed over in favor of foreign workers.

His bill imposes a minimum annual salary requirement of $40,000 for H-1B visa workers, and requires companies using the H-1B visas to have minimum gross assets of $250,000. Employers applying for the visas must show that the median wage they paid to U.S. workers increased during the last tax year.

"The Smith bill purports to have an unlimited amount of visas, but if you look at the restrictions imposed, there are a number of things the industry just can't live with," said Jeff Lande, vice president of IT services with the Information Technology Association of America, an Arlington, Va., organization that represents more than 11,000 IT companies.

The ITAA contends that the restrictions would push small businesses and entrepreneurs out of the program. In addition, the bill's wage requirements could open up a company's records to government scrutiny, creating a bureaucratic nightmare that could tie up the visa approval process.

ITAA also claims the legislation punishes companies that hire new workers at lower salaries, because the lower salaries would reduce the median wage, thereby reducing the company's access to H-1B visas.

The H-1B visa is a time-limited visa issued to foreign professionals to fill specific jobs within U.S. technology companies. The technology industry has been clamoring for more foreign workers to offset the shortage of skilled U.S. workers.

H-1B visas ran out for the first time in August 1997. In 1998, Congress increased the number to 115,000 for the next three years, with a gradual decline to 107,500 in 2001. By 2002, the cap would be back to 65,000, said Elizabeth Espin Stern, chairwoman of the Business Immigration Practice Group for Shaw Pittman, a law firm in Washington, that specializes in IT and telecommunications issues.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service begins issuing the visas Oct. 1, the start of the government's fiscal year. This year, the agency handed out all 115,000 H-1B visas allotted for 2000 by March, thus raising cries from industry that the number of visas should be increased for 2001 and beyond.

Other H-1B bills introduced this year included one by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., in the Senate; and another by Reps. David Dreier, R-Calif., and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., in the House. These bills would raise the ceiling on H-1B visas to 195,000 and 200,000 respectively, but without many of the restrictions in the Smith bill.

While industry officials dislike many aspects of the Smith bill, they do like his proposal for eliminating the cap on visas. Consequently, industry and its supporters in Congress are working to amend the Smith bill as it moves through the House and into conference with the Senate bill. The bill was being considered by the House Judiciary Committee at press time and is expected to go to the House floor in June.

"This is the first stage of a lengthy process," Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., told Washington Technology. Davis supports the Dreier-Lofgren bill but feels it is unlikely that bill would become law. And the Smith bill, he said, still holds promise.

"It appears to meet most of the needs of the technology community, and what it doesn't, we will resolve. I'm just happy to get a bill out," he said.

The Clinton administration also supports raising the cap on H-1B visas. The administration May 11 proposed raising the cap to 200,000 for the next three years, and recommended increasing the fees paid by companies to use the visas from $500 to $2,000, with a fee of $3,000 for companies that rely heavily on skilled foreign workers.

Proponents of a higher cap point to a recent study by the ITAA, which argues that IT hiring managers expect to see a shortfall of almost 850,000 appropriately skilled workers over the next 12 months.

These figures are disputed by the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national, non-profit, public interest organization made of citizens who believe that the mass immigration that has occurred over the last 30 years should not continue.

FAIR opposes all of the H-1B visa legislation and contends that the proposed increases are not necessary.

"Employers are always looking for the cheapest and easiest path to meet their immediate short-term needs," said K.C. McAlpin, deputy director of FAIR. "While that may be good for the employer, it may not be for the community involved."

McAlpin worried that the United States could become dependent on foreign workers, saying the H-1B visa legislation could be a "short-term fix that does long-term harm to our whole society and country."

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