- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 4, 2000

The Senate yesterday overwhelmingly passed a bill to provide almost 600,000 new visas over the next three years for highly skilled, foreign workers.

Technology companies have lobbied hard for the bill's passage to combat what they believe is a massive work-force shortage. The Information Technology Association of America contends that as many as 845,000 technology jobs have gone unfilled this year.

Labor unions and other opponents call that figure into question, saying technology companies want to depress wages by bringing in a flood of foreign workers.

Following months of wrangling over efforts by Democrats to attach illegal-alien amnesty-related amendments to the legislation, the Senate approved it by a vote of 96 to 1. Democrats had called for amnesty for illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States since 1986 and for political refugees from Central America and Haiti. But the Democrats agreed to put off discussion of the immigration issues until a later date.

The vote "should put to rest any question on the unanimity of views on the need to be competitive in a global marketplace," said Sen. Spencer Abraham, Michigan Republican and a co-sponsor of the bill, during a press conference yesterday.

House leadership last night called for debate on its version of the bill, similar to the Senate's and sponsored by Rep. David Dreier, California Republican. Following an evening of debate, the leadership hoped to ride the Senate vote's momentum and vote on the bill this morning, said a leadership aide.

A White House spokesman said President Clinton agrees with the bill in principle, but is not entirely satisfied with the Senate version. The administration was pulling for the immigration amendments.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service granted 115,000 of the visas in fiscal 2000, which ended Saturday. The visas are designed for foreign workers with at least a college degree in the field to which they are applying.

Under the bill, the agency would be allowed to give out 195,000 such visas each year for the next three years. Currently, the INS is permitted to grant 107,500 visas in fiscal 2001 and 65,000 annually in subsequent years.

Locally, the bill could have repercussions for the more than 1,000 companies in the Northern Virginia technology corridor.

At Vienna, Va.-based MicroStrategy Inc., foreign workers make up about 10 percent of the company's 1,600 domestic employees.

Typically, the company gets in its visa applications early in the fiscal year because of the low cap even if workers have other immigration papers that will cover them until later in the year, said John Nahajzer, MicroStrategy's employment and immigration counsel.

"[The bill] helps us because it gives us flexibility in our hiring later in the fiscal year," he said.

Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va., said the bill allows companies to recruit more people, especially from graduate schools, where foreign students come for an American education.

"You're going to be faced with a lot of excellent candidates who were born outside the U.S.," Mr. Miller said.

The bill is not without dissenting voices. Jack Golodner, president of the AFL-CIO's department for professional employees, said the legislation is overkill.

"We don't think that there is evidence of a [worker] shortage meriting this type of increase," he said.

He said companies should train the existing potential work force including older, female and black people rather than importing employees.

Mr. Golodner added that the visa program is itself "dysfunctional," rife with fraud.

Both the bill's supporters and critics said the increase in the visa cap is a short-term solution.

The legislation also includes increased education and job-training funding.

Companies now pay a $110 application fee for the visas, as well as a $500 fee that goes toward National Science Foundation and Department of Labor training programs.

Though the new bill does not designate a fee increase, it does assign 38.5 percent of those fees for science foundation grant and scholarship programs and 55 percent for training sponsored by the departments of Labor and Commerce.

The legislation also authorizes $20 million to decrease the so-called "digital divide" through the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

The money will be used to buy computers and train staff to teach children how to use them, said Donald Mathis, executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Harford County in Maryland. He was present, children in tow, at the Senate press conference to support the bill.

The funding will be matched by private money from tech companies, including Sterling, Va.-based America Online and Hewlett-Packard, among others, he said.

The foreign workers may fill positions now, but "why don't we grow our own?" Mr. Mathis said.

He added that many of the clubs' members, 6- to 18-year-olds, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, were formerly viewed as prison fodder.

"A lot of these kids, who were somewhat disposable before, are needed," he said.

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