House Republicans try once more to break the H-1B logjam

A letter from US House Republicans to the Speaker and Majority Leader of the House of Representatives urges yet another serious look at the current H-1B visa situation that plagues tech companies each year, which they describe as a fiasco.

The letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D - Calif.) and Leader Steny Hoyer (D - Md.) was scribed by Jeb Hensarling (R - Texas) and signed by 30 members of his House Republican Study Committee, a leading conservative caucus. It requests new legislation "within the next few months of 2008" aimed at increasing the number of high-skilled, legal immigrants into the United States to fill high-tech job roles.

"Every year, American businesses tell us how they are unable to retain the qualified people that they want to retain because of the artificially low H-1B visas caps and related regulations that do not reflect market realities," Rep. Hensarling wrote. "This situation is ironic, since most of these unemployable people were educated in the United States. As a country, we are effectively handing these highly-educated, extremely desirable individuals a diploma and a plane ticket. The message we are sending is, 'You can learn here, but you have to work in another country.'"

Issues related to H-1B visas has been a thorn in the government's side for several years, though little has been done to resolve the issue. Originally believed to be an issue related to illegal immigration, the caucus members hope Congress will separate H-1B visas and illegal immigration by "moving temporary, high-skilled, legal immigration reform legislation to the floor in short order."

During the previous Congress, the Securing Knowledge, Innovation, and Leadership (SKIL) Act of 2007 was introduced in both houses to help alleviate some of the current H-1B visa cap issues, but was never brought to either floor for a vote. The SKIL Act of 2007 would increase the overall cap from 65,000 up to 115,000, with a 20% increase in the number of total H-1B visas issued if the previous year's quota was met.

Although the SKIL Act of 2007 is currently stalled, the Strengthening United States Technology and Innovation Now (SUSTAIN) Act of 2008 is a bill that would raise the annual cap all the way up to 195,000 in 2008 and 2009. Sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R - Texas) with three co-sponsors, Smith hopes the "emergency fix" will provide Congress with a large enough time window to fix the problems permanently starting in 2010.

"The American economy thrives on high-tech companies that require high-tech workers to remain globally competitive. H-1B visas are necessary to ensure that these companies have the resources and workers required to succeed," Smith said in a statement when the SUSTAIN Act was announced.

"According to an annual survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, foreign-born students holding temporary visas received 33% of all research doctorates awarded by US universities in 2006 -- up from 25% in 2001. Foreign students comprised 44% of science and engineering doctorates in 2006," Rep. Hensarling's letter said. "Yet in the last five years, the 65,000 H-1B visa quota has been exhausted nearly as soon as the applications became available in April each year, leaving tens of thousands of well-educated, skilled professionals with no choice but to work in another country."

Technology companies in the United States have had a hard time hiring skilled foreign workers, as the quota for H-1B visas has been quickly met each year.

The current cap is 85,000 total visas -- 65,000 on general H-1B visas, and 20,000 for an exempted group with master's degrees or higher -- with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services receiving more than 163,000 H-1B visa petitions during a five-day window in early April. The USCIS chooses the exempted group first, with the applicants who do not get picked being put back into the general H-1B visa lottery.

During the early 1990s, the H-1B non-immigrant visa quota was rarely met, but that drastically changed around the year 2000. This year, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service reached its H-1B quota for 2008 after just the first week of petitions, and probably just the first day of that week. The year before, more than 150,000 people applied, though only 65,000 visas can be issued.

H-1B proponents claim it's asinine to educate many foreign-born students at universities in the United States only to turn them away to job markets overseas. Intel Chairman Craig Barrett, in a statement before Congress -- which was just as gridlocked then over the issue as it appears today -- said, "It's clear that the next Silicon Valley will not be in the United States."

Opponents of H-1B visa expansion believe the program allows companies to shun American workers while at the same time paying foreign-based workers a lower wage for the same work Americans would do for higher. Another common criticism is that the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math) are losing popularity among American students as foreign ones are perceived to be grabbing their degrees.

"We're looking here at home, but many of our graduates in key STEM fields are over here as foreign students," a Sun Microsystems spokesperson told BetaNews. "It makes no sense for the US to invest in educating these people, have US companies further invest in them with training, and then have to send them back to some other country to compete against us because of backlogs or arbitrary visa caps."

Tech companies are walking a fine line when trying to recruit foreign workers to come to the United States on an H-1B visa. For example, Microsoft last year announced plans to open a software center in Canada, which may have been aimed at avoiding H-1B visa issues. The expected 1,000 employees of the facility will be foreign-born and would likely work at Microsoft's Washington campus if they were able to receive visas.

More recently, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates spoke before Congress, warning it will be "infinitely more difficult to maintain its technological leadership if it shuts out the very people who are most able to help us compete."

"Companies can only affect change through appeals to the government, either directly, or by informing voters of the costs of maintaining these restrictions," Cal International business professor Sebastian Teunissen told BetaNews. "The end results could be less sales and less growth for the companies and, potentially, a less favorable balance of trade for the country," he added, if current H-1B visa issues linger on.

But not all science and tech companies operating in Silicon Valley are having a difficult time finding employees to fill their ranks.

"My group hires people for positions in facility operations, engineering, technical project management, glass washing and reagent preparation [laboratory support services]," said Rick Seegers, Novartis' vice president of engineering. "For positions within my group, we can generally find well trained staff locally although occasionally we will relocate someone for a senior position. Generally we have not had to hire people requiring visas."

Congress has heard bickering from politicians and tech workers alike, and the 65,000 quota cap will likely remain in place for the immediate future.

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