- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2000

Legislation that would give high-tech companies access to more skilled foreign workers is gaining momentum in Congress.

Business groups seem to have convinced Congress and the Clinton administration that more guest workers are needed to keep the information technology industry healthy, despite lingering concerns that U.S. jobs and wages would be threatened.

"There seems to be a general consensus on both sides that the number needs to be increased and that Congress needs to move quickly on a bipartisan basis," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, an industry group spearheading the lobbying effort for more guest-worker visas.

Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on immigration, and a leading skeptic of increasing guest-worker visas, has crafted a compromise bill that removes some regulatory requirements that industry lobbyists had opposed.

That bill, authored by Mr. Smith, a Texas Republican, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Texas Democrat, and Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, would remove the limit on skilled-worker visas, known as H-1B visas, for three years. It would set a minimum salary of $40,000 for those jobs and require that H-1B visa recipients have college degrees.

At the same time, companies would have to demonstrate that they have $250,000 in assets to participate in the program and conduct annual reviews of wages for American workers to ensure that they have not gone down as a result of more foreign workers in the job market. And companies would have to pay a $150 fee for each visa to help the INS and the State Department combat immigration fraud.

But Mr. Smith backed off an earlier demand that the Labor Department come up with oversight regulations for the H-1B visas, which industry groups argued would make the program too complicated.

The H-1B visa program allows foreign workers with special skills to work in the United States for up to six years. The number of visas is capped at 115,000 this year, but is scheduled to fall to 107,500 next year and 65,000 per year after that.

A scheduled vote yesterday in the House Judiciary Committee on the compromise bill was postponed until next week on procedural grounds. A similar bill has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee and could arrive on the Senate floor for consideration this week.

But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they expect to pass legislation this year giving high-tech companies greater access to skilled guest workers. The White House also has signaled willingness to boost H-1B visas.

Mr. Smith, a leading critic of the H-1B program, has contended that it is rife with fraud and abuse. He also has cast doubt on industry claims that more than 800,000 high-tech jobs are going unfilled because there are not enough U.S. workers with requisite skills.

"Such a demand can indicate an actual shortage of American workers, a spot shortage, a preference for cheap labor or replacement workers, or something else," Mr. Smith said during a markup hearing on the bill Tuesday.

"But because of the importance of the high-tech industry to our economy, I think we should give the industry the benefit of the doubt," Mr. Smith said.

Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, appeared to agree even as he and other Democrats have tried to add education and training money for U.S. workers into the legislation.

"There is general agreement that the economy of this country is best served by some sort of increase," Mr. Frank said during Tuesday's hearing.

High-tech industry groups note that this year's cap on H-1B visas was reached in March, a sign they believe demonstrates the need to expand the program.

Despite the momentum for raising the cap on H-1B visas, some labor groups and pro-immigration groups continue to question industry motives for seeking greater access to guest workers. They accuse the high-tech industry of seeking more guest workers simply to flood the job market and hold down wages.

The Immigration Reform Coalition, which favors more open immigration laws, is trying to gain support in the Senate for a plan to make it easier for foreign workers to gain permanent residence, rather than raising the cap on H-1B visas.

"We hope that the Congress is beginning to get it," said Paul Donnelly, organizer of the IRC. "Blowing the lid off the H-1B visa ceiling without fixing the green-card system will make things worse, not better."

But a high-tech executive said the industry worker shortage is real, and what helps the H-1B visa program helps the U.S. economy.

"Like just about every other technology company, we have a very large number of open positions," said Phillip Merrick, chief executive officer and founder of webMethods, a Fairfax, Va., business-to-business Internet company.

"That means we are not filling orders and delivering products as fast as we would like."

Mr. Merrick, a native of Australia, came to the United States in 1988 through the H-1B visa program and eventually received a green card. His company employs 310 persons, 21 of which are working with H-1B visas.

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