- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2000

A bill supported by high-tech companies to increase visas for foreign workers faces a critical test in the Senate as early as today.

High-tech executives are waiting to see whether the legislation will move forward in the Senate or if the bill, held up since June, will get bogged down by other immigration issues.

Senators decided last week to vote on whether to consider the bill. But a more critical vote likely to occur today will determine whether they will attach amendments on issues ranging from amnesty for Central Americans to permanent residence for certain political refugees.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Spencer Abraham, Michigan Republican, attempts to give the technology industry freedom from the tight labor market and shortage of skilled workers by increasing the number of foreign workers companies can hire under the H-1B visa program.

"We're in a desperate situation where we need these workers," said Lowell A. Sachs, a District of Columbia-based lobbyist at Palo Alto, Calif., computer hardware maker Sun Microsystems Inc.

The H-1B program allows skilled workers with high-tech visas to enter the country for a specified length of time to fill designated jobs, many at technology companies.

In fiscal 2000, which ends Saturday, Immigration and Naturalization issued 115,000 visas. The department had such high demand for the visas they stopped accepting applications for them on March 21 more than six months ago.

If the cap isn't increased this coming fiscal year, the high-tech visas could be gone by December 10 months before the fiscal year ends.

Demand is so high that "nowadays there's more cap time than time that you can actually get an H-1B visa," said John Nahajzer, senior immigration lawyer at Vienna, Va.-based Microstrategy Inc., which has an estimated 200 workers in the country on high-tech visas.

Industry experts say tech companies have an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 jobs that could be filled by H-1B visa holders.

The bill in the Senate calls for increasing the cap to 195,000 visas annually for each of the next three years. Without an increase, the INS can issue 107,500 visas in fiscal 2001 and 65,000 annually in subsequent years.

As of Aug. 1 the INS already had 29,000 high-tech visas pending visas they can't issue until Oct. 1 because applications for them arrived after March 21, when the cap was reached.

Because there is bipartisan support for raising the cap, technology companies feel Mr. Abraham's bill is their best chance to increase the number of visas since the Clinton administration tied the H-1B issue to changes in immigration policy earlier this year, stopping progress toward passage.

But renewed debate over whether the H-1B bill will have immigration-related amendments has left its outcome in doubt again.

The National Hispanic Leadership, a coalition of Latino groups, asked senators last week to attach amendments to the H-1B bill to offer permanent residence to some Central American political refugees and grant amnesty for illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States since 1986. Amnesty is given now to illegal immigrants in the United States since 1972.

Both Democrats and Republicans who want to court the Latino vote may be compelled to place the political refugee and amnesty amendments on an H-1B bill, said Charles Kamasaki, senior vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights group in the District.

"We are saying that if any immigration-related legislation is passed, that the [political refugee and amnesty] provisions should be attached," Mr. Kamasaki said.

If the amnesty and political refugee amendments are attached, passage of the H-1B bill is uncertain, tech industry experts say.

High-tech companies are desperately seeking a bill free of amendments to avoid becoming bogged down again, said Sandra Boyd, chairman of the industry group American Business for Legal Immigration and vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

A bill without other immigration amendments could earn quick passage because many congressmen have expressed support for bolstering the tech work force to keep the industry surging, said Miss Boyd, who led lobbying effort last week asking senators for a vote on an H-1B-only bill.

"If we can get over the next hurdle, we think we have the votes we need to get this taken care of," she said.

Some labor groups, including the AFL-CIO, have expressed concern that increasing the cap on foreign workers would give immigrants jobs that Americans could fill.

But increasing the cap is more likely to prevent U.S. technology companies from moving jobs offshore where labor is more plentiful, said Elizabeth Stern, immigration lawyer and head of the business immigration practice at D.C. law firm Shaw Pittman.

The industry's growth will depend on its ability to get workers, Miss Stern said. But first it will have to convince Congress to separate the work force debate from immigration issues supported by Latino groups.

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