Law Raises H1-B Visa Quota for Tech Workers

In one of its last moves before adjourning until 2001, Congress voted overwhelmingly last week to soothe the employee-strapped technology industry by boosting the number of H1-B visas issued in the next three years by nearly 300,000.

H1-B visas are temporary visas issued to foreign workers who come to the United States to work for a six-year term. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service issues 115,000 visas a year, but that number will climb incrementally for three years.

The new law also allows visa holders to remain in the United States during visa hearings instead of being immediately deported.

High-tech industries had pushed for the passage of the bill because companies claimed to be having a hard time finding enough qualified Americans to fill vacancies.

But most view the H1-B visa program as a Band-Aid for the workforce crunch. Congress therefore lumped in new measures to boost training and generate additional qualified U.S. technology workers.

Under the newly passed bill, employers will pay the government $1,000 for each H1-B visa holder hired. The money goes into a pot the Department of Labor uses to infuse grassroots education efforts.

"Opponents of the H1-B visa program have said that it reduces pressure to train American workers, but it is just not possible that foreign workers will be able to fill every single vacant job," said Harris Miller, president of Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America (ITAA).

ITAA has estimated that approximately 800,000 U.S. technology positions have gone unfilled. The group, along with others, has pushed Congress on other measures to beef up corporate training efforts to address that shortfall.

Another bill pending in the House would provide training tax credits. But Miller said lawmakers are unlikely to move on that bill before adjourning.

Sam Costello, a Boston-based editorial assistant for IDG News Service, an InfoWorld affiliate, contributed to this report.

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