H1-B Visa Reform Gains More Support

The legislative agenda for H1-B visa reform in Congress grew more crowded today with another proposal to increase the number of skilled foreign workers available to the U.S. workforce.

Last month, the 2008 allotment of 85,000 H1-B visas was expended after only one day.

Introduced by Senators Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), the bill would retroactively increase the cap to 115,000 in 2007 and would add a flexible adjustment mechanism enabling the to cap to rise as high as 180,000, depending on market conditions.

Under the bill, the H1-B visa ceiling would still be less than the 195,000 cap limit in 2001 to 2003. After the terrorist attacks of 2001, Congress slashed the number of H1-B visas as part of an overall focus on security.

The Skilled Worker Immigration and Fairness Act of 2007 would also exempt from the H1-B visa cap foreign nationals who hold U.S. graduate degrees or non-U.S. graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering or math.

“To remain competitive, American companies need access to highly educated individuals,” Lieberman said in a statement. “But today’s system makes it difficult for innovative employers to recruit and retain highly educated talent, which puts the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage globally.”

The bill also contains measures to improve enforcement against H-1B visa fraud and abuse, including prohibiting employers from advertising jobs as exclusively open to H-1B visa holders. The bill raises the H-1B petition fee by $500 to pay for enhanced enforcement and ensure the program pays for itself.

“Keeping America’s economy strong depends on having enough skilled workers,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. “That means making sure education and training opportunities are affordable and accessible, but it also means getting help from the world’s best and brightest when there are skill shortages.

The Lieberman-Hagel bill follows the introduction last month by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) of a bill to 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.

In March, 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 nation continues to witness a dramatic decline in the number of native born computer science graduates,” Jack Krumholtz, managing director of Federal Government Affairs for Microsoft, said in a statement praising the introduction of the Lieberman-Hagel bill.

As a result of the decline, Krumholtz said, “Technology companies like Microsoft rely on the H-1B visa and employment-based green card programs to deliver an adequate supply of highly qualified employees to help maintain our competitive position. That can only be achieved through immediate reform of these programs to ensure they are meeting the needs of our economy.”

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has long favored H1-B visa reform. Earlier this year, Gates told a Senate panel it is unsound policy to restrict foreign-born U.S. college graduates from working in the U.S.

“It makes no sense to tell well-trained, highly skilled individuals –- many of whom are educated at our top universities — that they are not welcome here,” Gates told the panel. “We have to welcome the great minds in this world, not shut them out of our country.”

Despite the three bills supporting the expansion of the H1-B visa cap, not everyone in Congress favors the idea. Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have introduced legislation to overhaul the entire program to give American workers priority over H1-B visa workers.

The bill would also crack down on employers who misuse the visas, including paying the foreign workers salaries less than the U.S. prevailing rate.

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