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Skilled worker visas running short again

Visas for highly skilled foreign workers are once again near exhaustion, prompting lawmakers to call for another increase in the yearly cap.

Visas for highly skilled foreign workers are once again near exhaustion, prompting lawmakers to call for another increase in the yearly cap.

Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) plans to introduce the New Workers for Economic Growth Act to boost the number of so-called H1-B temporary visas for this year. H1-B holders are usually graduates with talents that are in demand.

The high-tech industry aggressively lobbied for legislation passed last year that upped the H1-B visa cap from 65,000 to 115,000 for 1999 and 2000. But the increase apparently still isn't enough--the Immigration and Naturalization Service is expected to run out of visas this month.

Gramm wants to raise the cap to at least 200,000 per year.

"We'll only achieve our full potential if we assure that high-tech companies can find and hire the rare people whose skills are critical to America's success," Gramm said in a statement.

Still, not all are convinced that there is a high-tech worker shortage or a real need for more H1-Bs.

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in February 1998, some witnesses testified that more emphasis should be placed on hiring qualified workers who are U.S. citizens.

"[We] favor employment-based admissions policies that permit employers to hire foreign professionals, including engineers and computer specialists, based on a verifiable lack of appropriately skilled or easily trainable American workers--not simply because it is easier or less expensive to hire foreign workers who may be willing to accept less than prevailing wages in order to enter or remain in the United States," John Reinhart, president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers stated in his testimony last year.

Others worry that fraud is depleting the pool, including Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

In a May letter to INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, Smith called for more scrutiny of H1-B applications. According to Smith, witnesses from the INS and State Department testified before the House the same month an investigation of petitions from India, for example, found that 45 percent of the cases could not be authenticated and 21 percent were deemed fraudulent.

"I am concerned that many H-1B visa numbers are being obtained on the basis of fraudulent applications, thereby disadvantaging employers who use these visas legitimately," he wrote. "In particular, INS management should provide more active leadership and greater support to field officers who are working to expose fraud."