US increases H-1B visa limit

More foreign workers allowed into US but only half as many as asked for

The US Senate Judiciary Committee has approved an extra 30,000 foreign worker visas for 2006 under a visa programme popular with many technology companies, but the increase was halved from an earlier committee proposal.

The committee approved legislation that would expand the cap on H-1B skilled-worker visas from 65,000 to 95,000 in the US government's fiscal year 2006. The legislation, supported by several IT vendors, expands the H-1B cap by "recapturing" unused visas from past years going back to the early 1990s.

The extra visas would be available in years when the H-1B cap has been reached, as it has for fiscal year 2006.

A draft proposal circulated in the past week would have allowed up to 60,000 more H-1B visas a year, but Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, pushed for a smaller increase. Feinstein was concerned about the effect on US worker jobs, and 27% of H1-B visas fill computer-related jobs, she says.

"What I don't want to see is Americans lose jobs to foreign workers or Americans not have opportunity for these jobs," Feinstein says. "I think there needs to be further study of whether there is in fact a shortage of American workers to fill these jobs."

The 65,000 cap for H-1B visa applications in the US government's fiscal year 2006 was reached about two months before the new fiscal year began on October 1. Congress allowed 195,000 H-1B visas in the government's fiscal year 2003, but then let the cap fall back to its pre-dot-com boom level of 65,000.

The Judiciary Committee legislation, which would have to be approved by the full Senate as well as the House of Representatives, also includes a US$500 increase in the H-1B application cost. The current cost is U$3,185 (NZ$4,521).

Technology trade groups, including the Information Technology Association of America and the Information Technology Industry Council, had pushed for more H-1B visas, saying US companies need to be able to recruit workers from around the world to compete in a global economy. The Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), which is another trade group, and Microsoft applauded the committee's support of more visas.

SIIA President Ken Wasch calls the need for additional technology workers "urgent" for US companies.

"Despite concerns that the number of additional H-1B visas was cut in half ... SIIA believes that the proposal represents an interim solution for immediate US workforce needs while also providing necessary revenue for the federal government," Wasch says.

"Both of these objectives are consistent with the goal of positioning the US for continued global leadership in innovative technology."

Supporters of more H-1B visas also point to its benefit to US workers, with $1,500 of each visa application fee going toward US worker training programmes. The committee's decision "will give US business more ability to compete, succeed, remain competitive and provide new revenue for training US workers and for deficit reduction," says Jack Krumholtz , Microsoft's managing director for federal government affairs.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA (IEEE-USA), representing US IT workers, had opposed an increase in the H-1B cap. IEEE-USA would have preferred no increase, but "30,000 is better than 60,000," says Chris McManes, an IEEE-USA spokesman.

Current law allows for a 20,000-visa exception to the H-1B visa cap for graduate students, and close to 8,000 student H-1B visas remain unused, he says. "Industry says it only wants to bring in the 'best and brightest,' yet thousands of the 20,000 extra visas ... are not currently being used," McManes says. "If they were only seeking the best and brightest, shouldn't these visas fill up first?"

In June, the US reported job losses in five major engineering and computer job classifications in the first quarter of 2005. Compared to the 2004 average employment, the number of US computer hardware engineers dropped by 18,000 in the first quarter of 2005, a loss of 19% of those jobs from 2004. The number of employed computer software engineers dropped by 13,000, and the number of computer programmers, electrical and electronics engineers and computer and information systems managers also dropped in the first quarter, according to government statistics.

Offsetting the loss of 52,000 jobs in those five categories was a gain of 54,000 jobs among computer scientists and systems analysts, according to the government statistics.

IEEE-USA argued that the numbers show thousands of unemployed US IT workers. "Part of the reason the additional visas aren't needed is because of the abundance of unemployed US tech workers," McManes says. "That the cap for 2006 has already been reached doesn't show demand, it shows that US companies aren't even looking for Americans first."

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