U.S. Senate Passes High-Tech Visa Bill

After months of political wrangling, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill Tuesday that would significantly boost the number of high-tech visas issued to skilled foreign workers.

With a 96-to-1 vote, the election-year legislation would provide almost 600,000 new visas issued under its H-1B program, which permits immigrants to live and work in the U.S. for up to six years.

The bill’s passage came despite labor union protests that the increase will threaten the job market for American workers. The mushrooming technology industry, which contends that 300,000 jobs are going unfilled for lack of qualified workers, scored a coup with the bill’s approval.

“There is overwhelming unanimity that we must act in this fashion if we are to keep our economy going strong,” said Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Michigan) after the bill’s passage, according to published reports. “The short-term problem is how to fill the key positions immediately so that we don’t lose opportunities to foreign competitors or so that we don’t force American businesses to move offshore.”

On to the House

With the Senate vote completed, the bill’s battlefront shifts to the House of Representatives. Although a pair of competing H-1B proposals are currently circulating around the House, backers of the Senate bill are hoping House lawmakers will take up its version since it received such a strong showing.

“Time in the congressional calendar is running short,” Information Technology Association of America president Harris N. Miller said. “The House needs to act quickly and the President needs to sign this bill.”

Quota Increases

The Senate bill allows the Immigration and Naturalization Service to issue up to 195,000 temporary visas annually for the next three years to highly skilled workers. It also would exempt from the cap foreign graduates of U.S. master’s or doctoral programs or foreign workers at U.S. colleges.

The government allowed for the issuance of 115,000 H-1B visas during the just-ended fiscal year, but that quota was exhausted in March — seven months early. If no new legislation is passed by Congress, the cap will fall to 107,500 this fiscal year and to 65,000 by 2002.

The Senate legislation would double the application fee for companies applying for visas, from $500 (US$) to $1,000. That money is funneled into federal grant programs through the National Science Foundation and other groups to provide training for American workers.

Political Maneuvering

Controversy has dogged the legislation from its introduction, often miring it in partisan acrimony.

While Republicans have come under pressure to approve the visa increase, Democratic lawmakers are taking heat from labor unions, which maintain that the companies want more immigrants to downsize the wages of Americans holding the same jobs. Instead, the unions are pushing for beefed up training programs that would enable current citizens to fill more of the open tech slots.

Additionally, the bill’s supporters raised concerns that it would be used as political leverage for additional immigration legislation. Some Congressional members attempted to tack on other provisions that would grant amnesty to illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before 1987 and offer permanent residency to more political refugees from Central America and Haiti. The Senate fended off this additional legislation and voted on the more streamlined bill.

Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-South Carolina) voted against the bill, while Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Edward M. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut), the vice-presidential candidate, did not vote.

Tech Leaders Make Their Plea

The bill had the support of Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Microsoft and more than 200 high-tech heavyweights who have banded together to form the American Business for Legal Immigration coalition, out of concern that the meltdown in the number of H-1B visas will burst the current economic boom. In recent months, the group has undertaken an intense lobbying campaign to push a quota boost into law.

“Failure to raise the cap to allow access to highly educated foreign professionals, many of whom were educated at U.S. universities, will result in lost sales, delayed projects and other setbacks that will threaten the technological preeminence of U.S. industry,” the coalition said in an open letter to members of the House of Representatives earlier this year.

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