US H1B visa cap sparks fresh debate
The US government has filled its allotment of 65,000 visas for the 2006 fiscal year for foreign workers with special skills, prompting renewed debate over the need for high-tech workers from abroad.
Figures from US Citizenship and Immigration Services showed the 65,000 limit for the so-called H1B visa programme was reached last week for the fiscal year starting October 1.
There remain some 12,000 visas under a provision for foreigners with doctorates or masters' degrees. But high-tech industry representatives say the rapid filling of the main quota suggests the United States is failing to get enough qualified engineers and technical workers.
The workers with H1B visas come from many countries and industries, but historically a large number have been high-tech specialists from India, with significant numbers from China, South Korea and the Philippines.
"America's well-kept secret is that it has rarely produced enough American-born workers with the requisite science and engineering background to support its knowledge economy," said John Palafoutas of the American Electronics Association.
"Our safety valve has been the H1B visa programme, which was designed to augment the workforce."
The tech industry says the latest figures point to a need for expanding the visa programme.
"Denying entry of the world's most highly educated talent into the United States is taking its toll," said Palafoutas.
"We should be stapling green cards to the diplomas of every foreign national who graduates from a US educational institution with a masters or PhD, and we should keep the world's best and brightest here in the US to help strengthen our economy."
But critics of the programme say the system is being abused by companies to bring in foreigners at lower wages even when there are qualified Americans available.
Jack Martin of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group aimed at curbing both legal and illegal immigration, said companies are taking advantage of the H-1B programme for purposes not intended under the law.
"There is no shortage unless wage offers for high-tech workers are rapidly rising, which they are not," he said.
"It makes little sense to be hiring large numbers of foreign workers when jobs are being sent out of the country through outsourcing and there are large numbers of unemployed Americans with the skills to do those jobs."
The H-1B programme provided as many as 195,000 visas during the tech boom, but the limit was lowered in 2003. Still, Martin said that with the additional 20,000 for those with advanced degrees and exemptions for universities and non-profit organisations, the number is likely to be more than 100,000.
Martin said surveys indicate that foreigners often are paid about 30 per cent less than Americans in comparable jobs, suggesting the system is being abused.
"It's a badly flawed programme that does not serve its intended purpose," said Ron Hira, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and advisor to the IEEE-USA, which represents electrical and electronics engineers.
"Industry says they are using it just to bring in the most highly skilled people," Hira said. "But there are entries for eight-dollar-an-hour accountants and 17,000-dollar-a-year computer programmers."
Industry officials say the programme enables companies to keep more jobs in the United States. But Hira said some firms simply use the programme to train workers to be sent back to their home countries for outsourcing operations.
"If this were just the 'best and brightest,' employers would be sponsoring these people for immigrant visas, but that is not happening," Hira said.
Harris Miller of the Information Technology Association of America said US firms are losing many skilled workers because of the caps, and urged Congress to increase the numbers.
"The H1B visa programme is important to US competitiveness in high technology," said Miller.
"H1B visa holders are foreign-born individuals with talent and expertise unavailable in local markets. We believe a significant increase is required to meet the need for specialised skills and keep companies -- and as a result jobs for US workers -- growing at a steady pace."