House, Senate Vote to Increase H-1B Visa Cap

Congress has boosted the H-1B visa cap and made it easier for workers under the program to change jobs. But the cap increase, which President Clinton is expected to approve, may not make a big dent in the information technology workforce shortage.

Under heavy pressure from the high-tech industry, the House and Senate this week voted to increase the cap of the H-1B visa program to 195,000 over the next three fiscal years. The program allows skilled foreign workers into the U.S. for up to six years.

The cap was due to fall to 107,500 for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 and to 65,000 the following year.

The problem is that by the end of this year, some 850,000 IT jobs will be open, said Peter Burris, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn. Moreover, vendors, not end-user companies, will hire most of the H-1B visa workers; many visa holders have the deep technical skills vendors want, as well as a desire learn how high-tech businesses work, Burris explained. "But the more bright folks that the IT universe can get access to, the better for everybody," he said.

High-tech companies like Texas Instruments Inc. in Dallas hire H-1B visa holders. The company has 750 employees working under the program, out of a domestic workforce of 23,500, and the cap increase will help, the company said.

"By raising the cap, it's just allowing a greater number of folks to be in the [labor] pool from which we can draw," said Dan Larsen, a TI spokesman.

A change in the program that was important to TI has to do with permanent residency. "Our intention when we hire [H-1B workers] is to make them permanent residents, because these are people with skills that we really want to retain," said Paula Collins, director of government relations for human resources at TI.

The legislation will allow H-1B holders to stay in the U.S. for up to seven years if they have a pending application for a green card, the employment-based permanent visa, said Collins.

The legislation also makes it easier for H-1B visa workers to switch jobs, said Arthur L. Zabenko, a New York attorney and legal editor of the online newsletter "Immigration Daily."

Under present law, an alien in the program can't start a new job until the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service approves the application, a process that could take months. Under the proposed law, the alien could begin work at a new job as soon as the application is filed. "It gives employees much more flexibility," said Zabenko.

Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis, who has argued that the H-1B program is used to discriminate against older workers and keep wages down, said the cap increase will exacerbate those problems.

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