Rush for H-1B visas under way

April 1 marks start date for tech firms to apply for the visas. But even after prodding from Bill Gates, Congress hasn't raised the limit.

The 2007 rush for H-1B guest worker visas has begun.

April 1 marked the start date for technology companies to seek permission from the U.S. government to hire temporary foreign employees under the visa program, which permits up to 65,000 H-1Bs to be issued this year. Exceptions, however, allow that number to be exceeded.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and in the hardware and software business for years have pressed Congress to raise the limit, but politicians went home last December without doing anything.

"Without an increase in the number of H-1B visa and green cards issued each year, our nation loses the opportunity to benefit from the contributions of highly educated and skilled workers from around the world," Jack Krumholz, Microsoft's top lobbyist, said at the time. "American businesses and society in general will be worse off due to Congress' lack of action on this issue."

The H-1B program allows foreigners with at least a bachelor's degree in their area of specialty to be employed in the United States for up to six years. They're currently capped at 65,000 visas per year, with an additional 20,000 visas set aside for foreigners with advanced degrees, after peaking at 195,000 between 2001 and 2003.

In April 2005, and again last month, Gates said that any H-1B limits should be completely eliminated. Groups like the Information Technology Industry Council, whose member companies include Apple, Dell, Cisco Systems, IBM, Intel and Microsoft, have called for substantially higher limits.

Last year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said the annual cap on H-1B visas had been reached by May 26, less than two months after they began to be issued on April 1, 2006.

During the last Republican-controlled Congress, the U.S. Senate voted to raise the H-1B visa cap to 115,000, and President Bush endorsed the idea. But it died in the House of Representatives. It's not clear what the prospects are under a Democratic Congress.

One source of opposition has been protectionist forces, including labor unions and the IEEE-USA, which have said the H-1B system harms Americans by bringing in foreign workers who are willing to do the same job for less money.

IEEE's position statement opposes increasing the H-1B limits and says that holders of those visas "are competing with growing numbers of displaced citizens and legal permanent residents for jobs in troubled high-tech labor markets."

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