Bills Would Expand H1-B Visa Quotas

Bills to expand H1-B visas are stacking up like cordwood in Congress. A favorite among the technology industry, H1-B visas allow U.S. companies to sponsor foreign born U.S. graduates in science, engineering and math for up to six years of U.S. employment.

In the wake of last week’s announcement that the 2008 allotment of 85,000 H1-B visas was expended after only one day, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) reintroduced Tuesday his Securing Knowledge, Innovation and Leadership (SKIL) bill.

The legislation would exempt from the H1-B visa quotas U.S. educated foreign workers with advanced degrees in math, science, technology and engineering fields. The bill would also create a market-based H-1B cap, expanding or decreasing depending on demand.

Last month, U.S. Reps. Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced the Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act of 2007 (STRIVE), which would expand the current H1-B cap of 65,000 to 115,000. Under the bill, the cap would jump to 180,000 in any year after the 115,000 limit is reached.

The legislation would also exempt foreign born U.S. graduates with advanced technical degrees from the H1-B visa cap.

“Action this year is vital to U.S. competitiveness,” Paula Collins, vice president of government relations for Texas Instruments and co-chair of Compete America, said in a statement. “To remain competitive, high-tech firms need to be able to hire and retain the best science and engineering talent in the world, especially graduates of U.S. universities.”

Compete America, a coalition of technology companies lobbying for H1-B visa reform, points to last week’s quick allotment of visas as proof that Congress needs to act this year. Without a change in the system, technology companies will face an 18-month “blackout period” until H1-B visa workers can be hired for the 2009 cycle.

“Senator Cornyn’s re-introduction of the SKIL Bill recognizes that the H-1B visa crisis and green card backlogs are symptoms of an immigration system that is not aligned to today’s U.S. innovation economy,” Collins said.

Not everyone in Congress, though, is for expanding H1-B visas. Last week, U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced legislation to overhaul the entire program to give American workers priority over H1-B visa workers and crack down on employers who misuse the visas, including paying the foreign workers salaries less than the U.S. prevailing rate.

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 not 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.

“Our immigration policy should seek to complement our U.S. workforce, not replace it,” Durbin said in a joint statement with Grassley. “Some employers have abused the H-1B [program]… to bypass qualified American job applicants. This bill will set up safeguards for American workers.”

Despite Grassley and Durbin’s objections, Congress has generally favored expanding the H1-B program but the program is tied to larger immigration reform.

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