Senators propose infinite H-1Bs for advanced degree holders

Bill would exempt anyone with a master's degree or higher from a U.S. university, or with such a degree from a foreign university in certain fields.

A new U.S. Senate proposal would allow limitless H-1B visas and green cards for foreigners with master's degrees or higher in any field from an American university--or anyone with such credentials in the science, technology, engineering or math fields from abroad.

Like other competing proposals in Congress right now, the "Skilled Worker Immigration and Fairness Act," introduced on Tuesday by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), also proposes raising the existing annual cap on the controversial H-1B visas from 65,000 to 115,000 for fiscal year 2007. That number could climb by 20 percent in each subsequent year, to as high as 180,000, if the previous year's quota was exhausted.

Right now, there's also a 20,000 visa cushion beyond the existing H-1B quota for foreigners who have received advanced degrees in the United States. The new Senate bill would remove that 20,000 visa limit. It would also broaden the exemption from the H-1B limit beyond just those with advanced degrees to include foreigners with "medical specialty certification based on post-doctoral training and experience in the United States." A broad House of Representatives immigration bill known as the Strive Act contains a similar approach.

"To remain competitive, American companies need access to highly educated individuals," Lieberman said in a statement. "But today's system makes it difficult for innovative employers to recruit and retain highly educated talent, which puts the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage globally."

This year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it had received enough applications to fill all those slots just one day after the application window opened, prompting new calls for an increased quantity of the visas from technology firms that depend on them.

At the same time, the 15-page bill attempts to incorporate new safeguards on H-1B abuse, while giving the Department of Labor an extra 200 employees and additional authority to investigate suspect visa petitions.

The measure would prohibit companies from advertising jobs solely to H-1B immigrants or indicating preference for such workers. It would limit the number of employees on such visas to no more than half a company's work force, if it has 50 or more total employees on its payroll. It would also double the fines for employers that violate H-1B program requirements--to between $2,000 and $10,000--and require the Department of Labor to do annual audits of companies of more than 100 employees that derive more than 15 percent of their work force from H-1Bs.

The bill drew immediate applause from Microsoft, whose high-powered chairman, Bill Gates, recently urged Congress again to allow for infinite quantities of the work permits.

"The nation continues to witness a dramatic decline in the number of native-born computer science graduates," the company said in a statement. "As a result, technology companies like Microsoft rely on the H-1B visa and employment-based green card programs to deliver an adequate supply of highly qualified employees to help maintain our competitive position. That can only be achieved through immediate reform of these programs to ensure they are meeting the needs of our economy."

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who counts Microsoft in her constituency, also co-sponsored the bill.

But critics said the effort falls short in many ways. John Miano, founder of the Programmers Guild, a group that is concerned about foreigners displacing American computer programmers, said the proposal's exemptions would essentially amount to unlimited visas, rendering the cap all but useless.

"Get a master's degree in basket weaving, and you're eligible to stay," he said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "It's bad policy."

The bill would also fail to curb abuses of the system, Miano said. For instance, critics of the H-1B system have long balked at a provision in the law that says the Labor Department can only screen visa petitions for completeness and "obvious inaccuracies." The new bill would allow the department to investigate "clear indicators of fraud or misrepresentation of material fact."

That's not a huge change, because one of the more frequently fabricated claims on such forms is the wage level that an H-1B recipient will be paid, Miano said. "The only way I know that is because I went back and looked up the data," he said. "If you just look at the numbers, is it really a clear indication?"

Groups like Miano's have said the H-1B system suffers from fraud and abuse and is in need of serious repair. They have looked more favorably upon a bill introduced earlier this year by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) that attempts to prevent H-1B abuse by imposing a number of new obligations on employers.

High-tech companies, however, have voiced concern that those obligations are too overbearing. Among other things, employers would have to certify that they had made a "good faith" effort to hire an American before taking on an H-1B worker and that the foreigner was not displacing a prospective U.S. worker. That bill's sponsors on Monday issued inquiries to a number of Indian companies, targeting statistics showing some of them were among the top 20 H-1B recipients last year.

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