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H-1B visas may grow by half

A Senate committee boosted the number from 65,000 to 95,000, but some technology groups say the move still falls short.

U.S. senators this week endorsed a proposal that's long been a favorite of technology companies: a bigger pool of foreign workers.

A spending measure approved on Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee will boost the number of H-1B visas for highly skilled guest workers by about half--from 65,000 to 95,000.

The proposal would also raise H-1B application fees for U.S. employers by $500, which supporters described as a way to offset spending and avoid sizable increases in the federal budget deficit.

The changes won't take effect unless the full Senate--and later, a conference with the House of Representatives--approves. That may be easier said than done, as the House's version does not currently provide for a change in the H-1B visa cap. The next step for the bill is a debate in the Senate Budget Committee, currently scheduled for Wednesday.

The aim of the H-1B program, launched in 1990, is to keep U.S. companies globally competitive by allowing them to fill voids with skilled professionals from abroad. Under the program, foreigners with at least a bachelor's degree in their area of specialty can remain employed in the United States for up to six years.

Representatives from the technology industry generally applauded this week's move as a positive first step.

The measure "will give U.S. business more ability to compete, succeed, remain competitive and provide new revenue for training U.S. workers and for deficit reduction," said Jack Krumholtz, managing director of federal government affairs for Microsoft, whose chief has called for an unlimited supply of H-1Bs.

But some argued that the proposed increase wouldn't be enough to make a real dent. "My guess is if Congress does approve the 30,000, then those will get eaten up pretty quickly, and we'll be back in a similar situation," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, which counts IBM, Microsoft and Oracle among its members.

The visa cap hit a peak level of 195,000 between 2001 and 2003 but was cut back to its current level in 2004.

Congress "didn't foresee there would be a continued need for keeping it at that level, but it was very unrealistic to let it go back down to 65,000 when you had 195,000 and all those visas were being used up," said Harry Joe, a Texas-based immigration lawyer whose clients include technology companies that employ H-1B workers. "I think it needs to revert back to what the historic demand has been."

For the past two years, Joe said, the annual limit was met just as the new fiscal year began. Last year, that prompted Congress to approve a boost of up to 20,000 visas for foreigners who receive master's degrees or higher from American schools.

The idea of raising the number of visas has not been universally embraced. The IEEE-USA, which represents high-tech professionals, has criticized the system for taking jobs away from qualified Americans and has suggested that the companies have gotten away with paying less to foreign workers. Chris McManes, the organization's senior public-relations coordinator, said on Friday that the 65,000 number is sufficient.

"It should be a fall-back option for companies who cannot find U.S. workers," he conceded, "but we feel that in most cases, U.S. workers could be found."