VISAS FOR HIGH TECH

 

From Diana J. Choyce
Mar 27 - Apr 02, 2000

Calling all worldwide Information Technology experts, the US is giving away Visas. And this past winter they actually gave out up to 20,000 more than they intended. Immigration and Naturalization Service managers notified lawmakers last week that, because of a computer system miscommunication, they had exceeded the congressionally imposed cap of 115,000 H-1B visas for the year ended Sept. 30 by 10,000 to 20,000. The mistake is the "latest self-inflicted wound by the agency's inept management", said Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's immigration panel. "Little wonder there is such momentum behind the House's bipartisan legislation to split the INS into two simpler agencies," said theTexas Republican. He is pushing a plan to replace INS with separate service and immigration enforcement agencies. INS is contracting with an independent auditor to determine exactly how many extra visas were issued, agency spokeswoman Maria Cardona said Tuesday. The error occurred when visa approval numbers from the four INS service centers that process H-1B applications didn't get into the agency's main computer system in Washington that tracks totals, she said. "They can blame system errors or the computer. They can blame anything they want, but ultimately this is an agency that cannot count," said Smith spokesman Allen Kay.

INS officials declined to discuss options for dealing with the problem. But agency spokeswoman Elaine Komis said, "We're trying to find a resolution that first of all is permissible by law and second of all that will cause the least possible inconvenience to both current and future H-1B employers and beneficiaries." Congressional aides said INS managers have floated several ideas, including reducing this year's allotment by the amount of the 1999 overage or revoking visas issued after the 115,000 cap was reached. Revocation would be "unfair and inhumane," said Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, who has introduced legislation to increase the high-tech visa allotment to 200,000 annually over the next three years. "There has to be a better way," he said. The Information Technology Association of America, a Virginia-based industry group that is pressing to increase the H-1B cap, agreed. "You can't cut off that pipeline," said ITAA vice president Renee Winsky, citing Labor Department projections that the industry will need 140,000 new workers a year over the next decade.

This Technology VISA issue has become quite important in the past few years. Technology, fueled by the internet, has grown so fast that employers cannot keep up with hiring qualified people. It took less than half the fiscal year to exhaust the annual allotment of visas for skilled foreign professionals, the government said Friday. The announcement likely boosts the prospects for congressional action temporarily raising the ceiling on the visa program. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, given authority by Congress to dole out 115,000 H-1B visas for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, said it already has handed out 74,300 visas and has more than 45,000 petitions pending. Last year, the cap was hit in mid-June. The agency will stopped accepting visa petitions just last week. The announcement was noticed on Capitol Hill, where several measures have been introduced that would expand the cap for the visas, which are popular with high-tech employers who contend there isn't enough domestic talent to meet their surging industry's needs. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan "has made clear that the continued strong job market is placing strains on our economy, and these H-1B numbers underscore that fact," Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., said Friday. Dreier is sponsoring a bill that would raise the annual cap to 200,000 visas for three years "so that enough skilled workers are available to keep our economy growing." An industry trade group, the Computing Technology Industry Association, claims that nearly 269,000 high-tech jobs are unfilled. The problem costs U.S. businesses $4.5 billion a year in lost productivity, according to the association. Organized labor contends the industry is looking overseas chiefly to hold down wages and procure young talent.

High-tech industry officials are optimistic Congress will act this year to raise the ceiling for the visas, which are good for up to six years. The fact that the cap, established by Congress in 1990, was hit earlier this year than any time previously "clearly shows there is a tremendous demand for highly skilled individuals," said Bob Cohen of the InformationTechnology Association of America. A measure approved last week by the Senate Judiciary Committee would boost the number of visas to 195,000 for three years. A spokesman for the bill's co-author, Senate immigration subcommittee Chairman Spencer Abraham, said the INS announcement is "certainly another example of why we need to get this bill." "Hopefully, it will provide the big push to get the legislation through," said Joe Davis, a spokesman for Abraham, R-Mich. The Clinton administration has signaled it supports a "reasonable increase" in the program, which is permanently capped at 65,000 visas annually. Heeding the high-tech industry's complaints, Congress in 1998 temporarily boosted the visa category, which is due to revert to 65,000 after next year.

A good portion of the master's and doctoral students in US colleges are foreign nationals. And Silicon Valley companies look to these students first when they are hiring. Unemployment in the Valley is at only 2 percent, yet companies are still hiring at an amazing rate. "If we can't get the foreigners, we're not getting enough of the new skills into the company," said Mary Dee Beall, government affairs manager at Hewlett-Packard, which used the program for 200 of its 7,800 hires last year. It would seem now is a good time to look into employment in this field not only in the US but other countries as well. Still, there is something to be noted that students may find it more satisfying to return to their own countries to work. This would go a long way in giving less developed nations a chance to catch up to the rest of the world. But as ever, making money may be the bottom line on who actually gets this fresh, new, and eager talent.