House politicians propose 'emergency' H-1B hike

One bill would triple number of temporary work visas--from 65,000 to 195,000--in 2008 and 2009. Another would double them. Will either become law?

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
3 min read

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates clearly got through to some politicians with his plea for more H-1B visas on Capitol Hill earlier this week.

Late Thursday, a U.S. House of Representatives Democrat on the Science and Technology Committee, which Gates addressed, introduced a bill that would double the number of H-1B visas and remove other restrictions from 2008 onward. Then, on Friday, a key House Republican followed with his own proposal for "emergency" relief. His plan: tripling the visa cap.

H-1Bs allow foreigners with at least a bachelor's degree in their area of specialty to be employed in the United States for up to six years. Right now, the cap stands at 65,000, with another 20,000 for foreigners with advanced degrees from U.S. schools.

The first bill, sponsored by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), would bump the cap to 130,000 beginning in 2008--and increase it to as much as 180,000 if the limit is reached in the preceding year. At the same time, it would potentially allow in many more foreigners, as the bill would exempt from that cap anyone who has received a master's or doctorate from a U.S. university in math, science, engineering, and other technology fields. Up to 20,000 extra visas would also be allotted to people who had obtained such degrees from institutions outside the United States.

The second bill, called the Strengthening United States Technology And Innovation Now (or Sustain) Act, is even more aggressive. Proposed by House Judiciary Committee ranking member Lamar Smith (R-Texas), it would raise the visa cap to 195,000 in 2008 and 2009--the highest level since its peak between 2001 and 2003.

Both bills are meant to address what technology companies say is a visa shortage crisis. They're also more aggressive than other recent attempts to increase the H-1B cap, which set a 115,000-visa target.

Gates and other technology company executives have long said they need the ability to hire more foreigners--both on temporary visas and permanent green cards--to fill gaps for which they can't find qualified Americans. Gates maintained that H-1B visa holders at his company receive high wages, prevent jobs from being moved offshore, and even lead to creation of more jobs for Americans around those senior engineers.

Last year, the run on H-1B visas ended one day after it began, and the year before, the supply was exhausted after about two months.

Criticism from programmers
The setup of the H-1B program, however, has landed a fair share of criticism from American programmers, who argue that the visas depress their wages and displace qualified American workers. There are also allegations that the offshore firms--particularly Indian ones--have been snapping up H-1B visas, recruiting foreign workers, and then outsourcing them to foreign companies.

Ron Hira, a public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and author of the book Outsourcing America, told CNET News.com after Gates' talk that it's wrong to suggest most H-1Bs are going to the brightest foreigners with advanced degrees and earning them big bucks. According to latest report to Congress from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (PDF), the typical H-1B holder has a bachelor's degree and is making a median salary of $50,000, Hira said. The latest National Science Foundation report on the subject says only 1 percent of H-1B holders in computer fields held doctoral degrees (44 percent had master's degrees).

Other pending bills in the House and the Senate would place new obligations on U.S. employers before making H-1B hires, including requiring them recruit Americans first.

The application window for next year's crop of H-1B visas is set to open on April 1, and it's unclear whether either bill will see action before then. Both chambers of Congress are scheduled to begin a two-week recess on Friday and aren't expected to return until March 31.