H-1B limits raised, controversy ignited

You knew it was coming and you knew it would be controversial. The U.S. Senate last week approved a motion that would increase the number of H-1B visa workers allowed in the United States at any one time from 65,000 to 115,000 and let it grow beyond that if the higher threshold is met. It surely will be.

The H-1B provision was part of the immigration reform bill that is generating so much controversy. It was sneaky of the Senate to include the H-1B provision in the bill, in that few were likely to pay attention given the bill's overarching goal. But that's a story for another day.

Not surprisingly, Bill Gates, Microsoft's chief software architect, said in a statement that the Senate took a "critical step forward in its important work to ensure that our nation remains the global leader in technology innovation." Gates and leaders from other tech companies, such as Intel, have for years called for a higher cap on H-1B visas, arguing they cannot find enough U.S. workers with tech skills.

Anecdotal evidence aside, that's hard to imagine. "The real H-1B program has more to do with providing companies with cheap labor and little to do with making America more competitive," Ron Hira, vice president for career activities at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA (IEEE-USA), recently told a House of Representatives subcommittee. "The program is basically broken and can be easily manipulated. Until it's fixed, it makes no sense to increase the cap."

In 2005, the U.S Office of Management and Budget said the H-1B program is "vulnerable to fraud and abuse" because the U.S. Department of Labor has limited means to check the wages paid to H-1B workers, Hira noted. IEEE-USA also has said out-of-work U.S. IT workers should get the first shot at vacant U.S. tech jobs.

And make no mistake; H-1Bs are highly sought after. The number of applications for H-1Bs for the federal government's fiscal year 2006 hit the current cap in August 2005, a month and a half before the fiscal year even began.

Of course, what the House and Senate agree on and what President Bush signs into law could be quite different from what's currently being talked about. Detractors of the bill say the fact that it is included in a highly charged bill that seems unlikely to pass in its current form means it's possible the H-1B increase could never see the light of day. Proponents, however, are many and their lobbying power cannot be underestimated.

Our guess is H-1B numbers will rise. Not because of any grand open-door, we-need-the-help entreaties but simply because it will get lost in the larger immigration bill.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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