H-1B visa count down, anger up

In a year when the US began what has been characterised as a jobless recovery, immigration authorities issued 79,100 H-1B visas, a sharp decline from previous years. But that's cold comfort for displaced workers.

          In a year when the US began what has been characterised as a jobless recovery, immigration authorities issued 79,100 H-1B visas, a sharp decline from previous years. But that's cold comfort for displaced workers.

          The number of H-1B visas issued in the fiscal year that ended September 30 was well under the 195,000 cap set by Congress, and less than half the 163,600 issued by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service in fiscal 2001.

          Supporters of the H-1B programme say the decline indicates that the programme is working, is self-regulating and isn't being abused by employers. H-1B visas are used to bring skilled workers, many of them IT professionals, into the US. They are good for up to six years.

          But opponents, who are increasingly coalescing into grass-roots organisations, say the H-1B numbers tell only part of the story. They contend that employers are still bringing in large numbers of foreign workers, but they're doing so under programmes such as the L-1 visa, which is used for employees who are transferred by multinational firms to work in the US.

          Much attention, however, will be focused on the H-1B cap, which will remain at 195,000 this year but is set to decline in fiscal 2004 to 65,000.

          Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Virginia, says he doesn't know whether his industry group will fight the decrease to 65,000.

          "It will be hard to convince Congress" of the need for a higher cap "if you have no recovery or a jobless recovery," he said.

          Among the grass-roots opposition organisers is Peter Bennett, a Danville, California, resident who operates a website called NoMoreH1b.com. According to Bennett, many displaced workers are ready to act if Congress moves to increase the cap. "It will trigger an onslaught of calls" to lawmakers, he says.

          5.1% unemployment rate

          One organisation that has been critical of the H-1B programme is the IEEE-USA, a unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

          According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 94,000 unemployed computer scientists in the US. That's an unemployment rate of 5.1% in that field, says George F McClure, who chairs the IEEE's Career and Workforce Policy Committee. H-1B visa holders "are all competing for the same small pot of jobs, and we don't think that is a good thing," he says.

          Eight weeks ago, some unemployed IT workers in Connecticut formed The Organization for the Rights of American Workers. It started as an informal networking effort, but an organisational meeting required a hall to accommodate 65 attendees. The group now has 200 members.

          "We have members that are about to lose their homes," says John Bauman, vice president of the Meriden-based organisation. "We have to make the public aware of what's going on."

          Nate Viall, a Des Moines, Iowa-based recruiter who specialises in finding candidates for IBM iSeries application development, says that although there's no shortage of qualified US workers to fill those jobs, he has seen US workers lose out to H-1B visa holders. "It's always about the money," says Viall.

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