House debates H-1B visa cap

Computer World –

WASHINGTON -- A U.S. House Judiciary subcommittee today questioned the need for raising the controversial H-1B visa cap from 115,000 to 200,000, while its chairman expressed disappointment that five high-tech companies that had been asked to testify on the subject refused to show up.

"I don't appreciate the fact that we have to revisit an issue that we thought was resolved a year ago," said U.S. Rep. Edward Pease (R-Ind.), a member of the subcommittee on immigration and claims.

Congress raised the visa program cap -- from 65,000 to 115,000 -- for this fiscal year. Despite that increase, the cap was filled in May, well before the fiscal year expires at the end of September.

The visa program allows U.S. companies to hire foreign workers in skilled trades. The high-tech industry has been a major user of the program. But although five information technology companies had been invited to testify at today's hearing, none was willing to do so, said Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the committee chairman.

Smith said he was "disappointed" by the decision of those companies, which he didn't name, "especially since they are so outspoken on the subject."

GOP leaders, including Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lot, said this week that they would support an increase in the cap.

Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) likened the demand for visas to a "Oklahoma land rush."

"It seems to me that companies are filing a lot more petitions then they need because they don't want to get caught short," Lofgren said.

Smith said it was "rare" that Congress would be asked to re-examine major legislation so quickly.

There are conflicting reasons for the upsurge in H-1B visas, Smith said. Some argued that the demand has been caused by a worsening shortage in high-tech workers, while others said the demand "is merely reflective of a preference for foreign workers and their perceived advantages over American workers."

Smith said the cap may have been reached because of a "bubble" in the way visas are issued. After the 65,000 cap was reached in May 1998, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service kept receiving petitions and approving them with the stipulation that foreign workers couldn't start work until the beginning of the next fiscal year on Oct. 1, 1998.

Those workers were counted against the 1999 quota, Smith said, "so an argument can be made" that the 115,000 cap had already been reduced before it went into effect. "Without this reduction, we might have finished the fiscal year without coming up against the cap," he said.

But Smith didn't rule out raising the cap.

"We will debate H1-B visas," Smith said. "But we cannot address looming workforce problems if we turn a blind eye to immigration policies that do not serve the national interest."

Crystal Neiswonger, an immigration specialist at TRW Inc., said her company has over 1,000 job openings in technical areas. "Some of our business has been placed on hold," she said.

"The shortage of U.S. speciality workers will continue for the foreseeable future," Neiswonger said.

Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) urged TRW and other companies to do more to hire minority workers. "My position is we should try to meet each other halfway," she said.

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