WASHINGTON The U.S. Senate is expected to vote next week on a measure to increase the H-1B visa cap by 70 percent for the next three years.
A series of lopsided procedural votes in the Senate this past week forced consideration of the legislation, buoying its supporters. "The Senate has taken a small step to move on this and do the right thing," said a spokesman for the American Electronics Association (AEA).
The bill would increase the number of temporary visas granted annually from 115,000 to 195,000 for each of the next three years. High-tech companies support the bill, saying they need to employ foreigners to alleviate a shortage of skilled U.S. workers. One company boils it down to "a choice between importing people or exporting jobs."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R.-Miss.) predicted "overwhelming" approval of the measure, which still requires action in the House of Representatives. Observers consider congressional passage likely and even opponents of the visa-cap increases agreed. "It's a fait accompli," said Paul Kostek, 1999 president of IEEE-USA. "This bill is going to go through. As we saw two years ago when the cap was raised [from 65,000 per year], money talks."
Meanwhile, as Congress moves toward a showdown vote on H-1B, the National Academy of Sciences is poised to report on the labor needs of the nation's high-tech sector. The report, two years in the making and prompted in part by H-1B visa questions, is scheduled for release in October.
Citing the pending report, the American Association of Engineering Societies here called any congressional action now premature. "It's not timely for Congress to examine this issue until that study is completed," said Tom Price, executive director of the American Association of Engineering Societies, which represents 26 U.S. engineering groups.
But proponents of the legislation asserted that approval of the H-1B increase had been delayed only because additional proposals were now attached to the bill. Months ago, a proposed amnesty for illegal immigrants who had been in the country for at least 14 years was tacked onto the H-1B bill. Among the many moves made this past week in the Senate was a proposal to remove that language and let the H-1B increase move forward on its own.
"The push of our industry," the AEA spokesman said, "has been to get a clean bill without the extraneous language. It's our expectation that that clean bill is what will be voted on [in the coming] week."
That extraneous language included a range of immigrant-related topics. Debate over these ancillary issues has held up any votes on the visa-cap legislation. If the other immigration proposals are removed, proponents say, the increased visa cap is likely to be passed before Congress shuts down for the November elections.
Observers predicted that the amnesty proposals will be gone when the bill comes to a vote. However, they said, if that does not happen, the H-1B bill could still be added to a larger omnibus bill to secure its passage before the upcoming Congressional hiatus.
In supporting the proposal, large electronics corporations contend that if they cannot hire highly skilled workers for jobs in the United States they will be forced to set up operations in other countries. "Passage of this balanced, bipartisan bill . . . is a critical priority for Intel and the high-tech industry, which is critical to our economy," said a spokeswoman for Intel Corp. "We have a choice between importing people or exporting jobs. Last year, Intel hired 450 people with H-1B visas, which is 7 percent of our U.S. hiring. We use the H-1B visas mainly for highly skilled workers in critical areas."
Opponents contend that corporations want temporary workers because they often accept lower pay and because the visa program makes it difficult for them to leave the employer who sponsors them. Some observers call the six-year limit for H-1B immigrants unfair. IEEE-USA's Kostek said, "We feel that's not the best way to treat people: bringing them in for six years and then telling them to leave. If they are truly the best and brightest, that's definitely no way to treat them."
Nevertheless, he said, H-1B allocations seemed likely to rise. "Industry was willing to spend money to vote on this," he said, "and no matter how eloquently the case [against cap increases] is presented, it doesn't matter."
Opponents also question whether there is a true shortage, saying that many older engineers cannot find jobs, often because they typically receive higher salaries than younger, less-experienced workers. Many observers note that no unbiased studies have proved whether a shortage of skilled workers really exists. The National Academy of Sciences was studying both high-tech shortages and conditions faced by older workers.
Don't ask, don't tell
But if Congress was curious about the academy's findings, it wasn't asking. On the eve of making a decision on H-1B, "only a couple" of lawmakers had asked for the results of the two-year study, an academy spokesman said.
Other observers question why lobbyists for the high-tech industry are pushing so vigorously for passage of the bill this month. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, which administers the visa program, begins a new allocation Sunday (Oct.1), the start of the federal government's fiscal year.
"As of Sunday," said Paul Donnelly, chairman of the Immigration Reform Coalition here, "the IT guys have another 107,000 or so temporary visas. They [the lawmakers] can come back and vote on this later in the year. Another thing to keep in mind is that the State Department [closed] the books on green cards Oct. 1, and there are 50,000 unused green cards. There would be no crisis if these permanent visas were granted."
The Immigration Reform Coalition, which has close ties to IEEE-USA, urges giving skilled immigrants permanent green cards instead of temporary H-1B visas, noting that thousands of green cards go unused each year. Giving foreign workers permanent status, the coalition contends, would alleviate disruption in the home and workplace when H-1B workers have to leave after their six-year stay. The coalition said that would also remove the so-called "indentured servant" aspect of the H-1B program, in which workers must stay at the employer that sponsored them if they want a chance at getting a green card within the six-year limit.
The high-tech industry has argued that retraining and other education programs are long-term solutions to what it calls a shortage of engineers. Over the next week, the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) will release a report detailing education programs funded by 20 leading U.S. high-tech companies.
"The report was developed in part to respond to members of Congress who want a clearer picture of how the high-tech industry is investing in our education system," ITI said.
George Leopold contributed to this story.