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US bill to double H1-B visas

If passed it would open the country's doors to highly skilled immigrants for science, math and engineering jobs.

india Updated: Mar 14, 2006 13:22 IST

US Congress is likely to take up a giant immigration bill this month, which recommends nearly doubling the number of H-1B skilled-worker temporary visas to 115,000.

The measures include not just increasing the number of visas but also add an option of raising the cap 20 per cent more each year.

If passed, the provisions buried in the Senate's giant immigration bill, would open the country's doors to highly skilled immigrants for science, math, technology and engineering jobs.

The provisions were sought by Silicon Valley tech companies and enjoy significant bipartisan support amid concern that the United States might lose its lead in technology.

They would broaden avenues to legal immigration for foreign tech workers and would put those with advanced degrees on an automatic path to permanent residence should they want it, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

H-1B visas were highly controversial in the Bay Area when their numbers reached a peak of 195,000 in 2003.

The new skilled immigration measures are part of a controversial 300-page bill by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa, now being rewritten by the committee with the goal of reaching the Senate floor by the end of the month.

Other provisions include a new F-4 visa category for students pursuing advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

These students would be granted permanent residence if they find a job in their field and pay a $1,000 fee toward scholarships and training of US workers.

Congress had increased the visas during the late 1990s dot-com boom, when Silicon Valley complained of tech-worker shortages, although native-born engineers complained that their wages were undermined by cheap labour from India and China.

With the tech crash and the revelation that some of the September 11, 2001, hijackers had entered the country on student visas, the political climate for foreign workers darkened, and Congress quietly allowed the number of H-1B visas to plummet back to 65,000 a year.

The cap was reached in August -- in effect turning off the tap of the visas for 14 months. A special exemption of 20,000 visas for workers with advanced degrees was reached in January.

"We're in a bad crunch right now," said Laura Reiff, head of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, a business umbrella group backing more immigration. "We are totally jammed on immigrant visas, the green card category, and totally jammed on H-1B visas. You can't bring in tech workers right now."

The provisions for highly skilled workers enjoy support in both parties in the Senate and in the Bush administration after a raft of high-profile studies have warned that the United States is not producing enough math and science students and is in danger of losing its global edge in innovation to India and China.

However, opponents of broadening immigration for skilled workers said doing so would defeat efforts to get more Americans interested in science, math, engineering and other technological fields.