Heated exchange

H-1B visa controversy remains source of friction for lawmakers and employers

Microsoft founder Bill Gates generally got a
warm greeting when he came to a Capitol Hill
hearing room two weeks ago to urge that
more H-1B visas be made available to foreign
information technology workers. Thousands
of IT jobs at Microsoft Corp. are
vacant because there are not
enough qualified U.S. workers
and not enough H-1B visas, Gates testified
March 12.

But the response from Rep. Dana
Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) was chilly. He is one
of several lawmakers skeptical of Gates'
claims that those jobs are hard to fill.

"If the jobs are going begging, you raise
wages," Rohrabacher told Gates in a terse

Their tiff is the latest in a decade-long
argument in Congress over the visas' impact
on U.S. competitiveness and IT employees'
wages. With this year's quota of 65,000 H-1B
visas expected to be awarded in early April
and with advocates pushing for an immediate
increase and opponents complaining of job
losses and lower wages, the often-caustic
debate has begun anew. However, after several
years of failed attempts to raise the visa cap,
the terms of debate might be shifting slightly.

H-1B availability is a high-priority issue for
several large federal contractors. Microsoft
received 3,117 H-1B visas in fiscal 2006, the
most of any U.S. company. IBM Corp. was
eighth, with 1,130; Oracle Corp. was ninth
with 1,022. The other companies in the top 10
in 2006 are based in India and together
received more than 19,000 H-1B visas.
Accenture Ltd., Cisco Systems Inc. and
Google Inc. are also among top recipients.

H-1B visas were created in 1990 as temporary
work permits for skilled foreign workers.
Many go to IT employees, but social workers
and fashion models also receive them.
Some of the recipients apply for permanent

The program creates uncertainty for
employers. Last year, 123,000 applications
for H-1B visas came April 1 and 2,
the first two days of availability. The
Citizenship and Immigration Services
agency held a lottery to pick the winners.
Gates testified that only about a
third of Microsoft's applications for
H-1B visas were granted.

This year, CIS planned to collect
applications through April 5 before
conducting the lottery.

The cap for H-1B visas initially was
65,000 annually, but Congress raised
the number to 115,000 and then to
195,000 starting in 1999. Congress
restored the 65,000 cap in 2003, and
advocates such as Gates have been
pushing to increase it since then. They
have faced off against U.S. IT workers
who say the visas make it harder to get

"I did not find Bill Gates to be
convincing," said Ron Hira, assistant
professor of public policy at the
Rochester Institute of Technology. "The H-1B
program he described bears no resemblance
to the H-1B program I have been studying for
the last six years."


In broad terms, economists say the impacts of
H-1B are predictable.

"This is a free trade vs. protectionism
issue," said William Alpert, labor economist at
the University of Connecticut. Allowing more
foreign skilled labor into the United States
will tend to lower wages of U.S. skilled workers in the short term, while at the same time
improving the U.S. economy's global competitiveness,
he said.

Gates' testimony last month was quickly
followed by the introduction of legislation to
immediately raise the number of H-1B visas
available. A bill submitted March 14 by Rep.
Lamar Smith (R-Texas) would boost the
quota to 195,000 for fiscal 2008 and 2009.
Another bill, introduced March 13 by Rep.
Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), would increase
the number of such visas to 130,000 this year
and 180,000 from 2010 to 2015.

The outlook for passage is mixed. Many
lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain
(R-Ariz.), are strong supporters of raising the
H-1B cap. But the bills might be a difficult sell
this year because of the nation's uncertain
economy and job outlook.

Frustration with the program on all sides
has led to a slightly broader emphasis in
recent months. For example, there is discussion
about whether the H-1B lottery should
maximize benefits to U.S. companies and
whether to increase permanent residency
slots and educational stays. There also is
talk about closing loopholes in the law.
With the failure of broad immigration
reforms last year, H-1B visas might be
viewed as a temporary fix to a problem that
could be addressed more effectively with
increases in green cards, which would allow
skilled laborers to immigrate here.

Even strong supporters of raising the H-1B
cap, including Robert Hoffman, vice president
of government and public affairs at
Oracle and co-chairman of Compete America,
a coalition of companies and groups urging
an increase in H-1B visas, say there is a need
for a larger immigration debate.

Companies such as Oracle and Microsoft
need more green cards for skilled workers,
but there is a huge backlog in issuing them,
and long-term change is unlikely without
broad immigration reforms, Hoffman said.
"The challenge is that many immigration
issues are competing for the attention of
Congress," Hoffman said. "We need a shortterm
reform [for H-1Bs] we can all live with."


Another proposal is for U.S. companies to be
awarded the visas based on salary, with higher
salaries winning the bulk of the visas.

Gates has said publicly that H-1B visa holders
at Microsoft are paid an average of
$100,000 a year, including health care and
other benefits.

Hira noted that the most recently computed
median wage for H-1B visa holders overall
was $50,000 in 2005. Three-quarters of the
H-1B visa holders were paid $60,000 or less
that year, he said.

Kim Berry, president of the Programmers
Guild, a group representing computer programmers,
said companies such as Microsoft
presumably would benefit most if the visas
went primarily to the highest-wage workers.

"If H-1B were granted with a preference for
salary, every $100,000 H-1B that Bill Gates
filed would get approved," Berry said. "Any
business with a critical need for an H-1B candidate
could be assured of approval by paying
a higher wage."

Hoffman offered a slightly different idea of
allocating H-1B visas by company rather than
by individual.

If Microsoft receives 3,000 such visas, it
would be best to allow the company to determine
which jobs are most critical rather than
using a lottery system, Hoffman said.

"Who is better able to assess the needs
other than the company itself?" Hoffman

Both of those strategies presumably would
benefit U.S. firms more than Indian firms.
Nearly a third of the visas go to seven large
Indian outsourcing firms.

The H-1B visa political debate continues to
take shape ? albeit unevenly. After his
appearance in Washington, a photo of Gates
and Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of
the Science and Technology Committee was
posted prominently on the committee's Web

In contrast, opponents of raising the
cap say they have a hard time getting noticed.
Berry recently created HireAmericansfirst.org,
a Web site showcasing the experiences of
more than 100 IT workers affected by H-1B

"Whether we are making progress or not,
we are the only game in town," Berry said.

Alice Lipowicz (alipowicz@1105govinfo.com) is a
staff writer at Washington Technology.

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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