Electronic Design

U.S. Senate Pressed To Add 60,000 H-1B Visas

The on-again, off-again H-1B visa battle is on again. Corporations, trade associations, universities, and others are besieging the U.S. Senate to increase the number of H-1B visas available by 60,000 per year for at least the next five years.

The proposal provides for the issuance of additional H-1B visas in any fiscal year in which the current numerical ceilings (65,000 for baccalaureate degree professionals and 20,000 for advanced degree professionals) are reached. In such cases, the numerical ceiling will be supplemented in an amount equal to the lesser of “the cumulative total number of visas available in all prior fiscal years and not issued in each of those years or any subsequent fiscal year and 60,000.”

The proposal is currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

H-1B visas give employers access to professionals in “specialty occupations,” which usually means high-tech workers, even though H-1B status has not been assigned exclusively to this category.

Currently, 65,000 H-1B visas are authorized to be issued every year. They cover a three-year stay in the U.S. and can be extended for an additional three years for a maximum of six years. The 65,000 is down from 195,000 in Fiscal Year 2003. In November 2004, Congress created an exemption for 20,000 foreign nationals earning advanced degrees—masters and PhDs—from U.S. universities. However, only about 12,000 of the H-1B visas in this category are being used at the moment.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) announced in mid-August that it had reached the 65,000 cap for FY 2006. “But some want more,” says Vin O’Neill, the legislative representative of the Washington, D.C.-based IEEE-USA, the lobbying group for the IEEE.

The group views any expansion of the cap on H-1B visas as a threat to employment opportunities for its EE members. (The IEEE-USA claims that some H-1B visa status engineers are working in the U.S. for $10 an hour.) Reaching the current cap means that employers who want H-1B workers will have to wait more than a year before they can obtain additional visas.

In addition to corporations, many of whom are looking for cheap but highly skilled labor, other groups support increasing the cap for H-1B visa holders.

Compete America, a coalition of more than 200 corporations, universities, research institutions, and trade associations concerned about employment-based immigration, is one of the organizations that supports further immigration reform. “America has a long tradition of growing its own talent while welcoming it from across the globe,” says Sandy Boyd, Compete America chairman and vice president of human resources for the National Association of Manufacturers. “Government policy needs to reflect that tradition.”

Another special interest group, the Heritage Foundation, has called for more H-1B visas for math teachers.

Why would the U.S. Senate revisit this issue now? The IEEE-USA believes it’s mainly to help bolster the federal budget. Obtaining a H-1B visa requires a fee that can top $2000 per worker.

In informing U.S. IEEE members of the proposal to increase H-1B visas, the IEEE-USA suggested they “quickly” contact their legislators. “It is essential that Congress hear from as many engineers as possible IMMEDIATELY if you disagree with this plan,” the group’s e-mail said.

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