IT lobbyists pressuring US Congress to raise visa limits

An oversupply of applicants for IT visas is causing American employers concerns. Patrick Thibodeau reports

Nikita Dolgov is a software engineer who lives in Moscow and would like to get an H-1B visa to work in the US. He’s aware of the controversy surrounding the visa programme, but that hasn’t lessened his desire to work there.

“This is the original country for computer science,” Dolgov says. “This is the ultimate place.”

But it’s getting harder for people like Dolgov to get into the US. The cap of 65,000 new visas for the federal government’s 2006 fiscal year, which began on October 1, was reached in August — the earliest that has ever happened. Dolgov tried to get a visa, but his application arrived too late.

There’s now a push by high-tech industry groups to get the cap adjusted by the US Congress before it adjourns this year. But whatever happens is likely to be part of a broader immigration reform package, according to industry lobbyists and others seeking changes.

Among the ideas that may appear in legislative proposals is a flexible cap that would provide a method for increasing the annual H-1B limits once a certain level is reached. That would allow the number of new visas to “rise as needed,” says Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the American Council on International Personnel, which lobbies the US government on immigration issues.

Proposed reforms may also include a measure to allow some foreign workers, particularly those who hold advanced degrees from US universities, to get permanent residency and bypass the H-1B programme, say some sources.

Supporters of a higher H-1B cap, such as Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, aren’t sure Congress will act on the issue this year because hurricane relief issues are taking precedence. But he says the use of foreign workers is critical to US companies and that the exhausted fiscal 2006 cap is an “example of the US hurting its global competitiveness”.

US employers aren’t without options, however.

Congress last year approved an additional 20,000 visas annually beyond the cap, specifically for foreign nationals who have earned advanced degrees in the US.

More than 13,000 of those visas have been claimed for the new fiscal year and Shotwell thinks the remainder will be gone by December.

US companies can also hire Australian citizens under the new E-3 visa program. The E-3 has been compared to the H-1B, but it’s limited to residents of Australia and capped at 10,500 visas per year. Miller says he’s sceptical about the E-3 programme, adding that he doesn’t think many Australian technology workers want to come to the US.

But the willingness of workers from many other countries to take jobs in the US still appears to be strong — India is one example.

“There is no dearth of jobs for the qualified in India, but a US job is quite another thing,” says Manu Sharma, a New Delhi e-commerce consultant.

“It’s seen as a career landmark, like a prestigious MBA, that guarantees strong career growth.”

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