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. The annual cap of new H-1B visas was 195,000 in fiscal year 2003.
"Although a number of factors are affecting high-tech employment, including an improving economy and the migration of engineers out of the technical work force, statistics indicate that U.S. professionals have benefited from a reduction in H-1B visas," IEEE-USA President John Steadman said in a statement. "Because U.S. industry has been more restricted in its ability to bring overseas guest workers into the country, it has had to hire more U.S. citizens to fill open positions."
Citing government figures, IEEE-USA said more than 100,000 workers in major high-tech career areas remained out of work in the third quarter.
The legislation includes a number of worker protections, according to Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who pushed for visa program changes. Chambliss said the bill increases the H-1B application fee to $1,500, with the money to be used for education and training programs for U.S. workers. The measure also expands the Department of Labor's authority to conduct investigations and enforcement actions against inappropriate uses of the H-1B visa program, Chambliss said.
The L-1 changes, Chambliss said, are aimed to fix the problem of firms using the L-1 visa to act as international "job shops" that bring in foreign workers essentially for their labor and outsource them to third-party companies--resulting in the displacement of some U.S. workers.
The measure requires that any "specialized knowledge" L-1 visa holder who will be located at an off-site workplace be controlled and supervised by the petitioning company and provided in connection with an exchange of a product or service, Chambliss said.
In addition, the bill requires the Department of Homeland Security to provide statistics about which L-1 workers are employed off-site in order to discourage fraud, Chambliss said.