WASHINGTON — For Bill Gates, it’s just another week: Host Bono over the weekend, give an almost two-hour keynote at WinHEC on Monday and tweak Congress today.
What’s politically eating at Microsoft’s chairman and chief software architect? H1B visas.
Gates was on Capitol Hill to promote science education, research and development funding and to participate in a Library of Congress panel discussion with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Ver.), Rep. David Drier (R-Calif.), Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman and Phillip Bond, under secretary of commerce for technology.
When asked what he would do if he could make the laws, Gates quickly stated: “I’d certainly get rid of the H1B cap.”
An H1B visa is a non-immigrant classification used by foreigners who are sponsored and employed in specialty fields such as technology. The current H1B ceiling is 65,000 workers per year, following caps as high 195,000 employees in the early 1990s.
The huge cuts, prompted by national security concerns and protectionist lawmakers who think the jobs should go to Americans, are a longstanding sore point for the technology industry.
“The whole idea of the H1B thing is don’t let too many smart people come into the country. Basically, it doesn’t make sense,” Gates said.
The lack of H1B visas is causing problems for Microsoft’s hiring, he contended.
“You can’t imagine how tough it is to plan as a company where we say, ‘let’s have this engineering group and staff it.’ You get a few and then you go through these periods where nobody can come in,” Gates said.
He continued: “So, we’ll have Canadians waiting at the border until some bureaucratic thing happens where a few more get opened up. That’s just wounding us in this global competition.”
According to Gates, the core of the problem rests with members in Congress who want to step back to U.S. isolationism.
“It’s very dangerous because you get this reaction: ‘Okay, the world is very competitive, let’s cut back on trade; the world is very scary, let’s cut back on visas,'” he said.
Leahy agreed with Gates, but Drier politely demurred.
“The post-911 effort to cut down on visas, I think that’s a bad mistake, I think we should be increasing them,” Leahy said. “We should be opening our borders more, not closing them. It does not improve the security of the United States by thinking we can become Fortress America and not interact with the rest of the world.”
Drier countered: “We can’t be so naive as to believe that there is not a very serious border security problem with which we have to contend. We need to ask ourselves why it is that so many of these people who are educated at Princeton and other great institutions, why it is they leave?
He added, “It behooves us to spend time looking at our polices that create disincentives for people to remain working right here.”
Drier told Gates the H1B visa cap could be increased if demand was there.
“If the demand is there, why have the regulation at all? It’s almost a question of a centrally controlled economy,” Gates shot back.
Other than the H1B dust-up, the panel all agreed the U.S. needs to increase its science and math education for grades K-12 in addition to more funding for research and development.
“The interest in science has gone down quite a bit, some of the research funding in terms of how its focused and in some cases even going down, that’s a big problem there,” Gates said.
“We’re quite concerned that the U.S. will lose its relative position [in innovation] here in something that’s very critical to the economy,” he said.