H-1B Bump: Not Dead Yet

When the Senate’s sweeping immigration reform bill went down in flames last week, it also meant the end for a proposed amendment that would have given American high-tech companies the ability hire more foreign-born workers.

The amendment, proposed by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), would have almost doubled the number of H-1B visas and green cards available for scientists and engineers born outside the U.S.

For now, any changes to either the number of visas available or the qualifications required of potential visa recipients will have to be revisited in future legislation or spending bills that are currently winding their way through the Senate.

Tech companies and their lobbyists say the temporary setback means the industry will continue to be hamstrung by a shortage of highly skilled tech workers. Meanwhile, opponents of the current visa program say there are plenty of American workers who can fill these high-tech positions and that some companies are abusing the system to hire cheap labor.

“Yesterday’s vote was unfortunate because it interrupted the momentum and direction we feel is needed for the H-1B visa and green card programs,” says Robert Hoffman, an Oracle lobbyist based in Washington, D.C. “We were never able to have a full-fledged discussion about the crisis we’re facing in terms of hiring highly skilled workers.”

The failed immigration bill and Kyl-Cantwell amendment included provisions to raise the current H-1B visa quota from 85,000—65,000 visas and another 20,000 exemptions for foreign students with advanced degrees from U.S. universities—to more than 115,000 in 2008. That figure could have eventually been increased to an annual limit of 180,000 visas based on labor market needs.

Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California-Davis, says the death of the immigration reform bill will only delay an inevitable increase in the number of H-1B visas and green cards, giving high-tech companies the opportunity to further exploit the system.

“There’s no shortage of American workers for these jobs,” Matloff says. “I don’t like being lied to and the tech industry is lying to us. They simply want access to cheap labor.”

Matloff and other opponents support a proposal submitted by Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) that would overhaul the visa program to give priority to American workers.

Under current law, only companies that employ H-1B visa holders as a large percentage of their U.S. workforce are required to pledge that they have attempted to find American workers before hiring foreign workers. The Durbin-Grassley bill requires all employers to make a good-faith effort to hire American workers first, and that H-1B visa holders will not displace American workers.

Tech-industry leaders, including Intel chairman Craig Barrett and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, have appeared before Congress in recent months arguing the need for more H-1B visas and green card exemptions.

“Our priority is to increase caps to make more H-1B visas and green cards available,” says David LeDuc, a spokesman for the Software & Information Industry Association, a trade association representing more than 800 software and digital-content companies. “There isn’t any question that there’s a preference to hire Americans with advanced degrees in engineering and mathematics. But presently, it’s just not a realistic scenario.”

Kim Berry, president of the Programmers Guild, a Summit, N.J.-based advocacy organization for computer programmers and technology workers, says high-tech companies are overstating the dearth of qualified American workers needed to fill job openings.

“The biggest proponents of raising the H-1B caps are Oracle, Microsoft and Google,” he says. “Are you kidding? It is very competitive getting hired at these places.”

While this version of immigration reform appears to be dead at least until the presidential election in November 2008, Matloff and Hoffman agree that H-1B visa caps will likely be raised as part of an appropriations bill sometime this year. In 2004, Congress approved the H-1B exemption for foreign students with advanced degrees as part of a larger spending bill.

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