Plan to lower H-1B cap sparks debate at hearing

WASHINGTON (09/19/2003) - Officials from Intel Corp. and Ingersoll-Rand Co. last week told a congressional panel that the annual cap on H-1B visas shouldn't be lowered to levels that predate the dot-com boom. But the president-elect of a group for IT professionals retorted that the visa program is taking money from the pockets of U.S. workers.

The number of new H-1B visas that can be issued to foreign workers will drop by two-thirds when the federal government's next fiscal year starts Oct. 1, unless Congress votes to modify the cap reduction. At last week's Senate hearing, the corporate representatives who testified argued that more visas are needed to fill technical positions for which qualified U.S. workers aren't readily available.

Ingersoll-Rand searched for more than a year before it was able to fill a pair of plastics and industrial robotics engineering jobs, and it finally hired Canadian residents for both positions, said Elizabeth Dickson, immigration services adviser at the maker of industrial equipment, climate-control devices and other products.

It's hard to displace U.S. workers when you don't have any U.S. workers to choose from, Dickson said. Ingersoll-Rand's headquarters are in Hamilton, Bermuda, and its U.S. executive offices are located in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey.

Patrick Duffy, a human resources attorney at Intel, said the chip maker tries to find U.S. workers to fill jobs before bringing in H-1B visa holders. But he noted that more than half of the graduate students enrolled in physical sciences programs at U.S. universities come from other countries.

About 5% of Intel's U.S. employees are H-1B holders, according to Duffy. "This small percentage is comprised of individuals possessing unique and difficult-to-find skills," he said.

But John Steadman, president-elect of the U.S. chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc., told the Senate Judiciary Committee's Immigration Subcommittee that unemployment rates among IT engineers reached 7 percent earlier this year, an all-time high. This translates to hundreds of thousands of unemployed U.S. engineers, Steadman said.

Steadman, dean of the engineering school at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, called for longer-term solutions to the lack of qualified IT workers instead of an increase in the H-1B cap. He urged that more money be spent to encourage U.S. students to major in engineering and science.

Gross writes for the IDG News Service.

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