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Senate Votes to Hike H1-B Visa Fees

The U.S. Senate voted Thursday to increase H1-B visa fees for employers to $5,000 per application, $3,500 more than the current fee. Proceeds from the fee hike would be used to fund scholarships for Americans seeking degrees in math, technology and health-related fields.

The 59-35 vote came on an amendment to the current immigration bill being debated in the Senate. The new fee would be imposed on new applications and renewals.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who sponsored the amendment, said the fees raised could fund 65,000 scholarships of $15,000 each to American students. Sanders originally sought a fee of $10,000 per application.

"What many of us have come to understand is that these H-1B visas are not being used to supplement the American workforce where we have shortages but, rather, H1-B visas are being used to replace American workers with lower cost foreign workers," Sanders said on the floor of the Senate.

The Independent from Vermont spared no words for the tech sector that opposed his amendment while still seeking to raise the H1-B visa cap from the current 65,000 per year to up to a maximum of 180,000.

Major supporters of increasing the cap include Microsoft, IBM and Intel, who heavily depend on H1-B workers with advanced degrees. All three tech titans claim there is a shortage of American workers to fill the positions.

"To win favor in China, Microsoft has pledged to spend more than $750 million on cooperative research, technology for schools and other investments," Sanders said. "If Microsoft and other corporations have billions of dollars to invest in technology…in China, these same companies should enough money to provide scholarships for middle-class kids in the United States of America."

Compete America, which includes Microsoft and Intel as members of its coalition of corporations, educators and trade groups pushing for an increase in H1-B visas, called the Sanders amendment an "outrageous and onerous tax" on tech.

"The Sanders amendment will accelerate outsourcing and undermine U.S. economic growth," the group said in a statement. "This ill-conceived measure is flatly anti-competitive and is a clear attempt to gut the H-1B visa program and will make it much harder for U.S. business to support the Senate bill."

According to Compete America, its member companies "already engage in efforts at every level of education that significantly dwarf the potential scholarship fund created by this amendment."

Sanders is not the only senator with serious reservations about increasing the number of H1-B visas available to the tech sector.

In April, Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced legislation to overhaul the entire H1-B system to give priority to American workers and to crack down on employers who misuse H1-B visas.

The legislation would require all employers seeking to hire an H1-B worker to certify they have made a good faith effort to hire American workers first and that the H1-B visa holder would displace an American worker. Under the bill, employers must first advertise the job opening for 30 days on a Department of Labor Web site before applying for H1-B workers.

Grassley and Durbin also want to mandate U.S. employers pay H1-B visa workers prevailing U.S. wages. In addition, the bill would authorize and fund Department of Labor audits of any company using the H1-B program.

Sanders' chances of getting his amendment ultimately into law still faces a steep climb, as do most of the provisions being debate in the Senate. Whatever the Senate passes would still have to pass muster with the U.S. House and the inevitable conference committee that will thrash out the differences between the two chambers.