H-1B expansion draws support

But some worry workers will be hurt

The Senate's recent expansion of the controversial H-1B visa program is shaping up as one of the big political mosh pits of the IT world.

Squaring off are corporate bosses and computer worker bees; high-flying Internet entrepreneurs and low-paid programmers; Bill Gates and newly graduated computer scientists who think the IT job market stinks.

IT companies are strongly promoting expansion of the 16-year-old H-1B visa program, which lets them offer temporary work visas to specially skilled foreign workers.

But many IT workers fear job displacements and depressed salaries under the Senate-approved program enhancement. The Senate voted May 25 to increase the number of H-1B visas annually available to foreign workers from 65,000 to 115,000 with the possibility of an additional 20 percent increase every year.

The Senate's H-1B provision ? and the immigration reform bill as a whole ? still must be negotiated with the House and must pass in both chambers before it becomes law.

IT fields claim most

Typically, about half of the H-1B visas go to workers with computer skills, and the rest go to workers in other occupations. The visas can be renewed for up to six years, and in some cases lead to permanent residency for the foreign workers.

Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates, who came to Washington in March to argue in favor of the visas, said that more such visas are needed to improve U.S. competitiveness with foreign IT companies.

"I applaud the Senate for recognizing that U.S. competitiveness depends on our ability to recruit and retain the world's best minds, no matter where they are from," Gates said in response to the Senate passage of the H-1B provision.

Most of the Information Technology Association of America's 320 members have employed workers holding H-1B visas at some point since the program's 1990 creation, said Jeff Lande, ITAA senior vice president.

"There is a realization that the H-1B visas are necessary for America's competition," Lande said. Now that the economy has improved, many IT jobs are difficult to fill, and employers would like to be able to hire foreign workers who have specialized skills and often are graduates of U.S. universities, he said.

Some IT executives have hinted they might even move jobs overseas if Congress does not lift the cap on the visas.

As in past years, however, proposals to increase the number of available H-1B visas this year have been accompanied by protests from American IT employees, who said the program floods the IT job market with foreign workers and reduces salaries, especially for entry level and older workers.

"We think expansion of the H-1B would devastate our careers," said Kim Berry, a Web site developer in Sacramento, Calif., and president of American Programmers Guild, a professional group. When many foreign workers take jobs, they displace American workers, as well as work for lower wages, he said.

As evidence, Berry cited a December 2005 study by the Center for Immigration Studies that found foreign workers on H-1B visas are paid an average of $13,000 less per year than American IT workers get for the same kinds of jobs in the same states.

Conversely, a 2003 study for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta found the H-1B visa program had no significant adverse effects on American IT workers, although it cautioned that available data might be incomplete.

A Government Accountability Office report in 2003 found that the Homeland Security Department had so little data on H-1B visa holders that it did not know how many are in the country at any particular time.

To protect U.S. workers, employers must publicize open positions before hiring an H-1B visa holder, and they must pay prevailing wages. But such protections are ineffective and easy to skirt, Berry said.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA also is critical of the H-1B program and "disappointed" in the Senate's approval to raise the number of visas available.

"We don't understand why the Senate wants to expand a program that numerous government reports have found leaves U.S and foreign workers open to exploitation," IEEE-USA President Ralph Wyndrum Jr. said.

Numbers game

H-1B visas have been capped at 65,000 annually since 1990, but Congress hiked the cap to 115,000 in fiscal 1999 and 2000, and to 195,000 from fiscal 2001 through fiscal 2003. It restored the 65,000 limit at the beginning of fiscal 2004. Numerous exemptions to the cap are granted.

Of the 217,340 visas that were approved in 2003, only 78,000 were counted toward the legal H-1B cap. The rest were granted for employment in exempt institutions, including universities and non-profit organizations, according to NumbersUSA, an organization that promotes reduced immigration.

At least one member of Congress, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), said the H-1B program needs to be reformed. He has introduced legislation that would, lower the number of H-1B visas available, require all employers to prove they are hiring qualified U.S. workers first, and greatly strengthen enforcement and accountability provisions.

"My legislation faces the Americans who have high tech degrees in one hand and pink slips in the other," Pascrell said in introducing his H-1B legislation in November 2005. "We must address this fundamentally broken program that is tearing down the labor standards American workers have worked so hard to build up."

Staff Writer Alice Lipowicz can be reached at alipowicz@postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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