New rules for foreigners working in the United States with H-1B visas kicked in this week, but the debate over how the regulations passed late last year will play out has already hit its stride. Some observers predict another push from industry for more foreign workers as soon as this year, while others believe that broader immigration reform will be the next thrust in 2002.
Last fall, when Congress increased the number of annual temporary visas given out for foreign professionals, companies and foreign job hunters began jostling for a spot in line. Since the 115,000 visas available in fiscal 2000 were used up earlier in the year, applications began flooding in when the new fiscal year began in October, with its supply of 195,000 visas. The Immigration and Naturalization Service was so swamped with paperwork shortly after the bill was passed that officials can't even say how many they've processed so far.
"We don't have any new numbers, INS is now processing petitions filed in November," said Lynn Shotwell, director of government relations at the American Council of International Personnel (Washington), a trade association that helps large corporations deal with immigration and emigration issues. "We know there was a large increase in applications before the fee increase kicked in in December."
There's been some talk that the new legislation would provide more safeguards for U.S. workers, making it tougher for them to be laid off and replaced with temporary immigrants. Though such measures are part of the new legislation, they apply to only a portion of the companies that hire foreign workers.
"That only applies to H-1B-dependent companies, and there are not many of them," said Vin O'Neill, senior legislative representative at the IEEE-USA (Washington). "Fifteen percent or more of their employees have to be H-1Bs. That part of the legislation targets some of the staffing firms that hire H-1Bs and contract them out."
Opponents of increased immigration are already wondering what will happen if economic woes bring cutbacks to the engineering, programming and other technical professions that make heavy use of immigrant workers. Many believe that regardless of economic conditions, corporate America will seek broader access to foreign staffers.
"It remains to be seen what is going on with the economy and what's going on with hiring and layoffs," O'Neill said. "Industry is still interested in even more access to foreign workers."
Other opponents of increasing the number of temporary immigrants say that the lower salaries often paid to foreign workers makes it profitable for companies to use them instead of Americans.
No bad steps
"Their activities go on as if there had never been any layoffs," said Bill Reed, president of the American Engineering Association (Fort Worth, Texas). "There's no bad time to import workers. In good times, they may have reasonable needs. And in bad times it helps keep costs down even more."
However, Shotwell at the American Council of International Personnel said that she has not heard any serious discussions about raising the temporary-visa cap again. Instead, she said that many corporations want longer-ranging improvement in immigration. She supported a stance taken by the IEEE-USA last year, giving immigrant workers permanent green-card visas instead of temporary visas that have many restrictions, including the ability to switch jobs.
"The business community as far as I know has had no discussions about getting an increase [in temporary visas]," Shotwell said. "They're really talking more about long-term immigration change. One issue that came up was why not green cards, which give immigrants more permanent status. We're right there, we like that." However, she added, "I don't see anything happening with that until after the first year of this Congress."
For his part, the AEA's Reed predicted that it won't be long before companies ask for more immigrant workers.
"I think once Congress gets settled in, they will try for another increase," Reed said. "They won't be happy until they can get anyone they want from anyplace, with no limits."