by Stephanie Overby

Cap on H-1B Visas Brought to Congress

Jan 01, 20033 mins
IT Leadership

In 1998 and 2000, when high-tech companies asked Congress to raise the cap on H-1B visas (temporary permits that allow qualified foreigners to work in the United States), nary a legislator blinked. The economy was strong, dotcoms were going concerns, and the cap rose?to 115,000 in 1998 and to 195,000 at the end of 2000. The cap, however, is slated to shrink to its original level of 65,000 in October 2003.

As that date approaches, high-tech trade groups will argue that their need to compete requires top-notch skills only available abroad. American workers’ groups will charge that companies use the H-1B program to hire cheap foreign labor. (While the U.S. IT unemployment rate hangs at more than 5 percent, those out-of-work American IT laborers find an Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) report that the United States lacks 500,000 qualified information technology professionals hard to swallow.)

Arlington, Va.-based ITAA and the Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.-based Computing Technology Industry Association say they will begin lobbying in the spring to boost the number of visas. They won’t yet make their position public, but most expect the introduction of a bill that will either keep the cap high or eliminate it altogether.

Grassroots efforts are under way on the other side, though with smaller war chests. Alliance@IBM, a union of IBM workers in Armonk, N.Y., is looking for evidence that Big Blue laid off local workers while retaining H-1B visa holders with the same skills, and the Seattle-based Washington Alliance of Technology Workers is working to see if it’s possible to get state tax breaks for companies that abstain from H-1B hiring.

The U.S. General Accounting Office is even getting involved, looking into whether companies have shown a preference for H-1B workers. The study is due out sometime in 2003.

One thing is clear: The economy will dictate the outcome in Congress. “If unemployment continues, Congress will be more attentive,” says Vin O’Neill, senior legislative representative for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a Washington, D.C.-based professional group whose 235,000 members lobbied Congress to study the effects of H-1Bs and offshore outsourcing.

In the middle are American CIOs like Fairchild Semiconductor’s senior vice president and CIO, John Watkins, who employs 40 H-1B visa holders. “I’m not sure I wouldn’t feel the same way [as laid-off IT workers] if I were them,” Watkins says. “But if you look at why we put this in place in the first place, it was simply because corporate America couldn’t get its hands on enough qualified man power. Over the last two years, that problem has been reduced. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to stop the program. You never know when the economy is going to come back.”