Tech firms ask Congress for U.S. visa expansion

H-1B visas remain a bone of contention for tech companies crying out for skilled workers -- or are they just looking for cheap labor?

Immigration is a hot topic in Congress at the moment, and the tech industry is determined to have its say.

According to Reuters, a number of tech firms are lobbying to raise the official cap on H-1B visas, which allows citizens of other countries to stay in the United States for up to six years.

The U.S. Capitol Building

In order to secure such a visa, you need to have a "specialty occupation," advanced skills or a degree in a field which is lacking local talent. Demand has soared for the visa, which has an annual cap of 85,000. Because of stiff competition, 65,000 of the visas are awarded through a lottery system -- which can leave firms in purgatory while they wait to see if their overseas staff have the right to work in the States.

As a result, some technology companies have asked Congress to consider a bill proposal that would gradually raise the cap to 300,000 as well as alter the current green card system. Intel, for example, believes that raising the cap will lower company uncertainty while decisions are being made, and the current process "puts a real constraint on our ability to hire the skilled workers we need to allow us to innovate, create new products and create new jobs."

Over 100 firms have petitioned Congress for a "market-based" visa system which is flexible enough to change depending on market conditions and the need for skilled workers. One argument for this system is that American universities are not producing enough graduates in fields including engineering, math and computer science, so restricting a firm's ability to poach talent from abroad also hampers its competitive edge.

Other organizations, however, feel that the idea of the U.S. being a dry pool when it comes to talent and specialist workers is exaggerated. Instead of offering work to now-unemployed but more experienced -- and probably more expensive -- developers from the U.S. opposing groups argue that the program is nothing more than a source of cheap labor. In addition, some employers abuse the system by bringing in workers to hire them for entry-level work.

These operations are not limited to the U.S. In Australia, the prime minister says many firms are abusing the 457 visa application system, and using it to hire foreign IT workers when local talent could take the roles instead. According to the PM, the IT industry is the worst offender, and because of the visa abuse, the government plans to tighten restrictions on immigration.

According to the publication, an estimated $132.5 million was spent last year on lobbying Congress by computing and Internet firms. For some leaders, barriers to hiring are the real issue, rather than the idea that the U.S. has a talent shortage. As the economy becomes more connected and globalized, it is necessary to attract global talent in order to compete properly.

Last year, 129,000 H-1B visas were issued to temporary workers as university employees amongst others are not counted. If an employer wishes to hire an overseas resident with an American university degree, there is a separate cap of 20,000 currently in place.

This story originally appeared at ZDNet under the headline "Tech firms lobby for US visa expansion."

 

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