Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has again urged the US Congress to let more engineers from India and other parts of the world work in the country as immigration restrictions were forcing US high-tech firms to outsource jobs overseas.
The current cap of 65,000 H-1B visas aimed at highly skilled professionals "is arbitrarily set and bears no relation to the US economy's demand for skilled professionals", he told a Congressional panel for the second year in a row.
Noting that all the 65,000 visas for the current fiscal year were snapped up in one day last April and that employers are now waiting to apply for visas for fiscal 2009 that starts in October, Gates Wednesday said: "Last year, for example, Microsoft was unable to obtain H-1B visas for one-third of the highly qualified foreign-born job candidates that we wanted to hire.
"If we increase the number of H-1B visas that are available to US companies, employment of US nationals would likely grow as well. For instance, Microsoft has found that for every H-1B hire we make, we add on average four additional employees to support them in various capacities."
Voicing a longstanding complaint from the technology sector, Gates said: "Congress's failure to pass high-skilled immigration reform has exacerbated an already grave situation.
"As a result, many US firms, including Microsoft, have been forced to locate staff in countries that welcome skilled foreign workers to do work that could otherwise have been done in the United States, if it were not for our counterproductive immigration policies."
Gates argued that the US economy benefits from these skilled immigrants. He cited a study that found that one-quarter of all start-up US engineering and technology firms created between 1995 and 2005 had at least one foreign-born founder.
"The United States will find it far more difficult to maintain its competitive edge over the next 50 years if it excludes those who are able and willing to help us compete," Gates said.
"Other nations are benefiting from our misguided policies. They are revising their immigration policies to attract highly talented students and professionals who would otherwise study, live, and work in the United States for at least part of their careers.
"It makes no sense to educate people in our universities, often subsidised by US taxpayers, and then insist they return home," he told the House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee during a two-hour hearing.
Asked by Republican Dana Rohrabacher if visa cap increases will "not hurt those countries and will it also not depress wages for people in our own country", Gates responded with a sharp "No", adding: "These top people are going to be hired. It's just a question of where."
Rohrabacher said he's not talking about "top" students. He's concerned about the B and C American students who "fought for our country and kept it free". There was no excuse, he argued, for displacing those people with "A students from India".
Gates replied that when companies like Microsoft hire top foreign engineers, they create jobs for B and C American students around them. If Microsoft weren't able to hire those top engineers in the US, it'd be doing so in other countries and surrounding them with native B and C students, he said.
Rohrabacher argued that if companies like Microsoft simply raised wages, they'd find plenty of Americans lining up for those jobs. "No, it's not an issue of raising wages," Gates retorted. "These jobs are very, very high paying jobs."
Launched in 1990, the H-1B visa programme allows foreign scientists, engineers and technologists to be employed for up to six years, at the end of which they must obtain a permanent residency or return home.
Indian companies accounted for nearly 80 percent of the visa petitions approved in 2007 with Infosys and Wipro topping the list with 4,559 and 2,567 approvals respectively, according to latest data from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Overall, six of the top 10 visa recipients in 2007 are based in India. Two others among the top 10 - Cognizant Technology Solutions and UST Global - are headquartered in the US but have most of their operations in India.
Microsoft and Intel, which also have significant India operations, are the only two traditional US tech companies among the top 10. Microsoft received 959 visa petition approvals, while Intel got 369.
The US will begin accepting H-1B visas on April 1 for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct 1. Last year, the US received 123,480 visa petitions in two days, more than double the 65,000 cap. Companies receiving visas were randomly picked by USCIS via a computerized lottery.