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H-1B visas hit roadblock in Congress

Senate panel votes to double guest worker visas next year. Prospects look dimmer in the House.

A plan to boost the number of temporary visas is facing obstacles in the U.S. Congress, despite the plan's popularity with technology companies and foreign workers.

Supporters of H-1B visas--reserved for highly skilled guest workers--applauded a move Monday by a U.S. Senate committee to nearly double the cap from 65,000 to 115,000 visas next year, and President Bush has endorsed the idea too. But by the end of the week, it became apparent that the House of Representatives may not follow suit.

During Thursday's hearing before a House panel that oversees immigration topics, the idea of increasing the number of H-1B slots failed to win a commitment from politicians. And no legislation equivalent to the Senate bill has been introduced in the House.

Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat from southern California, said she was "not supportive of in any way expanding or increasing these visas" and suggested that companies look to neighboring states, not foreign countries, for new hires. Waters co-sponsored a House bill last fall aimed at limiting the H-1B visas and imposing new obligations on U.S. companies hoping to make hires.

Perhaps Congress should require employers interested in making H-1B hires to make certain promises, such as certifying that they've posted the job for American workers first and that they're not replacing American workers with foreign ones, suggested Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican.

"We must not betray American students by encouraging them to enter into a tough major for the good of their country (such as science and engineering) and then offering their job to foreign students," King said.

The debate comes amid tense congressional negotiations over a controversial 478-page proposal designed to beef up U.S. border enforcement and settle disputes over how to handle an estimated 11 million immigrants residing illegally on American soil.

After the hearing, advocates for increased H1-B visas indicated they were not encouraged. "Our experience last year leads us to believe that the House will be more hesitant to adopt the reforms necessary to fix the H-1B and green card systems," said Eric Thomas, spokesman for the advocacy group Compete America, which has been pushing for greater flexibility in hiring global talent. Compete America describes itself as a coalition of over 200 corporations, universities, research institutions and trade associations.

Thomas added: "We are hopeful, however, that with a strong Senate bill and the support of the president that we will be able to achieve our goals this year."

Launched in 1990, the H-1B visa program permits 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. In addition to boosting the annual total, the Senate Judiciary Committee's bill approved this week includes the possibility for additional 20 percent increases in subsequent years if the limit is reached.

"I view an increase in the cap a short-term solution to a long-term problem, which is to find a way to produce enough American workers for these occupations."
--Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee

Silicon Valley has seized on the opportunity to reiterate its requests for an elevated visa cap. The existing "arbitrary" cap "has severely hampered Microsoft's ability to recruit the best and brightest workers," Jack Krumholz, Microsoft's managing director of federal government affairs, wrote in a letter to leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives this week.

The Information Technology Industry Council, a trade group whose members include Cisco Systems, Apple Computer, IBM and Oracle, echoed those calls for reform in a similar letter this week, though it did not suggest a particular number.

The tech companies have found an ally in Bush, who also has pressured Congress to "be realistic and reasonable and raise that cap."

"Of course, we want every job that's ever generated in America filled by Americans, but that's not the reality today," Bush said last month in a speech at 3M headquarters in Minnesota.

"I view an increase in the cap a short-term solution to a long-term problem, which is to find a way to produce enough American workers for these occupations," said Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, the Texas Democrat who serves as co-chairwoman of the House panel.

But she acknowledged that without an H-1B program, American companies would be starved for enough "highly educated professionals for the specialty occupations."

The H-1B cap has fluctuated over the years, peaking at 195,000 between 2001 and 2003 but reverting to lower levels starting in 2004. The allotment for visas had already been reached by the first day of the 2005 fiscal year and six weeks before the start of fiscal year 2006, drawing renewed outcry from technology companies over worker shortages. Congress has already approved an additional 20,000 slots for foreign master's or Ph.D. graduates of U.S. universities.

Groups such as the IEEE-USA, which represents American electrical and electronics engineers, have argued that the system is used not to bring in the best and the brightest foreign talent, but to pay them lower wages than their U.S. counterparts.

David Huber, a computer network-management specialist based in Chicago, told politicians at Thursday's hearing that he had firsthand experience with such displacement. Describing himself as a senior-level employee "whose life has been devastated by the H-1B program," Huber detailed two instances in which he had applied for positions that were later offered to foreign workers--in one case, at a salary he claimed was $30,000 less than the market rate.

Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, said he was concerned that certifications along the lines of what his colleague suggested would be unenforceable and ineffective. He suggested it might make most sense to keep the H-1B program as an option for employers but institute a "sliding cap that will decrease over time so we will not shut out homegrown American workers."

CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.

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