US foreign worker quota set to drop amid backlash

CIOs who have relied on H-1B visas to keep IT labor costs down may want to rethink that policy. The quota for H-1Bs, which confer temporary resident status to foreign technology workers, is set to revert in October from the current 195,000-a-year limit back to 65,000.

          CIOs who have relied on H-1B visas to keep IT labor costs down may want to rethink that policy.

          The quota for H-1Bs, which confer temporary resident status to foreign technology workers, is set to revert in October from the current 195,000-a-year limit back to the pre-internet boom level of 65,000.

          Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, which has led efforts to hike the H-1B quota in the past, says that at current hiring rates, if the quota decreases as scheduled, the visa allotment could be used up by next April.

          But that may be the least of a CIO's worries. The unemployment rate among American high-tech workers is pushing 5%, which is leading to a backlash against foreign IT workers and the companies that sponsor them. One manifestation of this backlash is a recent lawsuit initiated by a former Sun Microsystems employee who alleges the hardware vendor deliberately laid off American workers and replaced them with lower-paid foreigners. More than 500,000 US technology workers lost their jobs between January 2001 and December 2002. During the same period, companies sponsored more than this number of high-tech workers on H-1B and other temporary visas. According to the INS, the median salary for an H-1B worker is 25 percent less than that of an American's.

          The technology industry is quietly pressing Congress to keep the H-1B cap high. So far, there isn't a congressional sponsor for the proposal, but the tech lobby has powerful allies. When the current quota was set in October 2000, House leaders slipped it through one evening after many opponents had left for home, and H-1B detractors are convinced the same thing will happen again.

          Meanwhile, the controversy won't go away, and it could affect staff morale. That's already happening, says David Ray, associate director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which lobbies to keep immigration levels low.

          "Immigration should not be a tool to destroy the careers of American workers," says Ray.

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