Clinton Proposes H-1B Visa Increase

President Clinton yesterday proposed raising the H-1B visa cap and also outlined a series of measures that he urged Congress to consider while weighing possible H-1B legislation. The president's plan drew criticism from some House Republicans but was applauded by a prominent high-tech industry trade group.

Clinton proposed raising the cap on the number of visas issued to foreign workers to 200,000, starting in the federal government's next fiscal year beginning in October. Currently, the cap is set at 115,000 visas for this year and 107,000 for fiscal 2001.

According to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), more than 60 percent of the 134,000 visas allotted between May 1998 and July 1999 were granted to individuals working in computer-related jobs, mostly systems analysts and programmers. Facing a chronic labor shortage, the high-tech industry has argued in favor of raising the H-1B visa cap to bring in more skilled technical workers, who can stay in the U.S. for up to six years.

One of Clinton's measures calls for raising the H-1B processing fee to fund high-tech education and training initiatives, particularly for underrepresented groups such as women and minorities. Clinton proposed raising this fee from $500 to $2,000, although companies at which H-1B visa holders make up 15 percent or more of the workforce would have to pay $3,000.

"Considering the significant cost and salaries and moving fees of hiring a worker from another country, these fees are quite a small percentage of the costs of bringing in additional workers," said Gene Sperling, director of the White House's National Economic Council. Sperling outlined Clinton's measures in a letter sent to Congress yesterday.

Clinton also proposed that 40 percent of the fiscal 2001 H-1B visas be granted to individuals with at least master's degrees and that the percentage be raised to 45 percent and then 50 percent during the next two fiscal years. According to the INS, 41 percent of visas allotted between 1998 and 1999 were to workers with at least a master's degree.

In a statement issued yesterday, the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) in Arlington, Virginia, applauded Clinton's proposed measures.

"Increasing the availability of highly skilled workers to American technology firms is one of the most positive steps the U.S. can take this year toward continuing the robust growth of the new economy," said ITAA President Harris Miller.

But U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas, chairman of the House Immigration Subcommittee, said Clinton's proposals neglect the needs of American workers. "I have never seen a more complete disregard for American workers," Smith said in a statement. "For them, this is all about politics, not American workers or high-tech visas." Two pending bills seek to raise the H-1B visa cap to roughly 200,000 over the next three years - one would take effect immediately, but the other wouldn't go into effect until fiscal 2001. A third bill, sponsored by Smith, proposes eliminating the H-1B cap altogether, but some critics have said that bill includes minimum-salary requirements and other provisions that would be onerous to employers.

Carl Shusterman, a Los Angeles-based attorney who is following the H1-B proceedings, said he expects a law raising the cap to be passed by Congress this summer.

But not everyone agrees. Liz Stern, an immigration attorney at Shaw Pittman in Washington, said she thinks employers should be "skeptical about counting on additional H-1Bs this year."

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