Committee Passes H-1B Visa Legislation

WASHINGTON (03/09/2000) - The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee today passed legislation that would temporarily raise the number of H-1B visas granted annually to 195,000 from the current 115,000.

The committee voted 16-2 to send the bill, sponsored by Republican Senators Orrin Hatch of Utah and Spencer Abraham of Michigan, to the Senate floor, said Jeanne Lopatto, spokeswoman for the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senators Edward Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, voted against the bill, Lopatto said.

In addition to raising the cap, the legislation would make it easier for H-1B visa holders to change jobs and would exempt workers who earn a masters degree from a U.S. university.

Increasing the number of H-1B visas issued by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has become a priority issue for U.S. high technology companies that say they must recruit foreign workers to fill technical positions. But some critics of raising the cap say U.S. high-tech companies have drummed up the worker shortage in order to use it as an excuse to hire foreigners at relatively lower salaries.

At the urging of the high-tech industry, Congress approved legislation raising the number of H-1B visas in late 1998. That legislation raised the number from 65,000 to 115,000 this year. The legislation passed by the committee today would raise the cap to 195,000 this year and maintain that number through 2002.

Steve Bowers, spokesman for the Software & Information Industry Association, however, said the worker shortage has put companies in an immediate bind as they desperately seek to fill their openings while the development of their products falls behind. Even though efforts now are underway to train more American workers for high-technology jobs, it will be years before there are enough U.S. citizens to fill the ranks, he said.

"We really support the effort to train American workers. The bottom line is we have a problem right now," Bowers said. "If we don't get increases in visas this year, all of us are going to feel the effects."

Though Bowers said there was bipartisan support for Hatch and Abraham's bill, he warned that the amount of time to push it through Congress is limited due to campaigning this election year.

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