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Bad news for H-1B visa seekers

The House of Representatives may not approve legislation that would increase the cap from 65,000 to 115,000 visas.

india Updated: Apr 01, 2006 19:00 IST

After a promising start in the Senate, a plan to nearly double the quota for H-1B visas has run into trouble in the US Congress.

Earlier this week, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation that would increase the cap from 65,000 to 115,000 visas next year.

But by the end of the week, it became apparent that the House of Representatives may not follow suit, web publication CNET.Com reported.

The idea endorsed by President George W Bush and supported by technology companies, big and small, failed to win a commitment from politicians and no legislation equivalent to the Senate bill has been introduced in the House.

Representative Maxine Waters, a Democrat from southern California, said she was "not supportive of in any way expanding or increasing these visas" and suggested that companies look to neighbouring states, not foreign countries, for new hires.

Waters co-sponsored a House bill last fall aimed at limiting the H-1B visas and imposing new obligations on US companies hoping to make hires.

Congressman Steve King, a Republican said, "we must not betray American students by encouraging them to enter into a tough major for the good of their country (such as science and engineering) and then offering their job to foreign students."

The development comes at a time when the nation is debating controversial policy proposals aimed at dealing with the estimated 11.5 million-12 million unauthorised migrants in the US.

After the hearing, advocates for increased H1-B visas indicated they were not encouraged.

"Our experience last year led us to believe that the House will be more hesitant to adopt the reforms necessary to fix the H-1B and green card systems," Eric Thomas, spokesman for the advocacy group Compete America told the CNET.

The advoc group, which describes itself as a coalition of over 200 corporations, universities, research institutions and trade associations, has been pushing for greater flexibility in hiring global talent.

Thomas said: "We are hopeful, however, that with a strong Senate bill and the support of the president that we will be able to achieve our goals this year."

Launched in 1990, the H-1B visa programme permits foreigners with at least a bachelor's degree in their area of specialty to be employed in the United States for up to six years.

In addition to boosting the annual total, the Senate Judiciary Committee's bill approved this week includes the possibility for additional 20 per cent increases in subsequent years if the limit is reached.

The bill has received major backing from Silicon Valley companies, claiming there are not enough qualified Americans.
The existing "arbitrary" cap "has severely hampered Microsoft's ability to recruit the best and brightest workers," Jack Krumholz,

Microsoft's Managing Director of federal government affairs, wrote in a letter to leaders of the US House of Representatives this week.

The tech companies have found an ally in President Bush, who also has pressured Congress to "be realistic and reasonable and raise that cap."

"I think it's a mistake not to encourage more really bright folks who can fill the jobs that are having trouble being filled here in America -- to limit their number," Bush said last month in a speech at 3M headquarters in Minnesota.

But some high-tech workers say the visas just allow companies to hire cheaper foreign employees beholden to the firms that sponsor them.

David Huber, a computer network-management specialist based in Chicago, told the House of Representatives subcommittee at Thursday's hearing that "the real H-1B programme has more to do with providing companies with cheap labour, and little to do with making America more competitive."

At the height of the dot-com boom, Congress temporarily increased the number of H-1B visas to a high of 195,000 a year from 2001 to 2003.

But as part of the deal to get the large increase through Congress in 2000, the annual cap reverted in 2004 to its pre-1998 level of 65,000. It's remained there ever since.

First Published: Apr 01, 2006 15:51 IST