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Report: More info needed on H-1Bs

Congress' accounting office says the government should do a better job of collecting data to help determine the impact the controversial H-1B guest-worker program has on U.S. workers.

Congress' accounting office says the government should do a better job of collecting data to help determine the impact the controversial H-1B guest worker program has on U.S. workers.

In a study released Thursday, the U.S. General Accounting Office said that the Department of Homeland Security has "incomplete information on H-1B worker entries, departures, and changes in visa status. As a result, DHS (Department of Homeland Security) is not able to provide key information needed to oversee the H-1B program and its effects on the U.S. work force, including data on the number of H-1B workers in the United States at any time."

The H-1B program permits highly skilled foreigners to work in the United States for up to six years. Defenders of the program view it as a way for companies to remain competitive by hiring foreign workers with specialized talents. Opponents have assailed H-1B visas for taking away scarce tech jobs from U.S. workers.

The program permitted up to 195,000 new visas annually in 2001, 2002 and 2003. In 2001, 163,600 petitions were approved against the cap, and the number fell to 79,100 in 2002, according to the study. H-1B petitions approved for employment with U.S. universities and nonprofit research organizations are not counted against the annual cap.

The cap falls back to 65,000 for the year that began October 1.

The report said that in contrast with 2000, most H-1B visas granted in 2002 were to fill positions in fields not directly related to information technology, such as economics, accounting and biology. In 2002, 40 percent of all H-1B visas were approved to fill IT-related occupations, such as systems analysis and electrical engineering, compared with 65 percent in 2000.

The number of H-1B petition approvals and U.S. citizens employed in certain occupations, such as systems analysts and electrical engineers, decreased from 2001 to 2002, according to the report.

The GAO said it contacted 145 H-1B employers, with 36 agreeing to speak about the issue. The majority of those 36 said that they recruited, hired and retained workers based on the skills needed, rather than the on applicant's citizenship or visa status, according to the study. Despite increases in unemployment, most employers said that finding workers with the skills needed in certain science-related occupations remains difficult, the GAO said.

Some employers acknowledged that H-1B workers might work for lower wages than their U.S. counterparts, but the extent to which wage is a factor in employment decisions is unknown, the report said.

In addition to calling for better tracking of H-1B visa-related data, the GAO urged the Homeland Security Department to issue regulations on the extent to which unemployed H-1B workers are allowed to remain in the United States.

"Allowing unemployed H-1B workers to remain in the United States may have implications for the labor force competition faced by U.S. workers," the report said.