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Senate OKs more foreign visas

The Senate votes to pass the American Competitiveness Act, raising the number of foreign workers U.S. firms can hire each year to 90,000.

Boosting the number of foreign workers U.S. firms can hire each year to 90,000, the Senate voted 78 to 20 to pass the American Competitiveness Act today.

Driven by the high-tech industry's professed labor shortage, Sen. Spencer Abraham's (R-Michigan) bill expands the limit on the number of foreigners allowed to petition each year for a H-1B work visa. Under the bill, the visa cap could grow to 105,000 annually by 2002.

The temporary category for nonimmigrant workers includes specialty occupations requiring a bachelor's degree or higher, such as engineers, computer programmers, and college professors. The three-year visa can be extended for up to six years maximum. The bill passed today also would increase stiff penalties for companies that purposely lay off U.S. workers to replace them with H-1B visa holders.

Just last week the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) stopped accepting visa petitions for highly skilled foreign workers because the nation had hit the 65,000 annual cap on the visas--with 4-1/2 months left to go in the fiscal year.

The computer and engineering industries often look outside the United States for the "best and brightest" employees, but the INS says any short-term increase in the number of visas allowed should be coupled with industry efforts to train and retain U.S. workers for the lucrative posts.

At least one amendment was introduced to ensure that firms look long and hard for U.S. employees before recruiting talent from abroad.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), for example, introduced an amendment to fine companies up to $25,000 for failing to search for a U.S. worker before filling a slot with a foreign employee.

"[Three-fourths] of these jobs pay $75,000 or less [per year]. These are good jobs for Americans," Kennedy argued in favor of the amendment. "We are saying, 'Make sure you offer it to an American before you hire a foreigner.' "

The bill's author, Spencer, countered that any such provisions would create a bureaucratic nightmare for corporate recruiters. "[They] would give the Labor Department dramatic, intrusive powers" in the recruiting activities of high-tech companies, he said.

The majority of the Senate voted to reject the Kennedy amendment.

The entire bill now must be cleared by the full House.

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