Bill adds 20,000 H-1B visas

Exempts certain grads of U.S. schools from H-1B cap, requires firms to attest that H-1B worker will not displace U.S. worker.

Up to 20,000 more guest worker visas will be available annually to foreigners who earn advanced degrees in the United States, under a bill passed by Congress this weekend.

In a catch-all spending bill, Congress agreed to a number of changes to the controversial H-1B and L-1 visa programs. President Bush on Saturday said he plans to sign the legislation.

Among the visa program changes in the bill are a requirement that companies attest that an H-1B worker will not displace a U.S. worker and a $500 "antifraud" fee tied to visa applications. In addition, up to 20,000 foreigners who earn a master's degree or higher from a U.S. institution will not be counted toward the annual cap of 65,000 new H-1B visas.

Businesses have pushed for such a change. The government announced on Oct. 1, the first day of the 2005 federal fiscal year, that that year's limit had already been reached.

"Granting this exemption puts America first by giving U.S. employers access to this talent and giving U.S. taxpayers a bigger return on the tax dollars they invest every year in U.S. institutions of higher learning," Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America trade group, said in a statement Monday. "Foreign students make up 50 percent or more of attendance in many advanced math, science and engineering programs. Forcing foreign students to return home after earning their advanced degrees sends that public investment packing."

H-1B visas, which allow skilled foreign workers to work in the United States for up to six years, have frequently been used by technology companies. Exemptions to the cap already exist for institutions of higher education, nonprofit research groups and governmental research organizations. L-1 visas allow companies to temporarily bring in employees from other countries for managerial or executive work, or for work that entails specialized knowledge.

Both varieties of visas have been accused of hurting U.S. workers.

Technology worker advocates had hoped to prevent the passage of the H-1B exemption in the bill. On Friday, the U.S. wing of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers released a statement saying the number of unemployed U.S. high-tech professionals has shrunk this year, mirroring a drop in the H-1B visa cap.

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