- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 11, 2001

As millions of Americans lost their jobs in an economic slowdown, U.S. companies hired a record number of skilled foreigners under a special visa program.
At the urging of the technology industry, Congress raised the cap for these six-year H-1B visas, designed for professionals with skills that employers say are in short supply among U.S. workers.
In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the Immigration and Naturalization Service issued 162,000 H-1B visas. Although that total was less than a new 195,000 annual cap, it was far more than the previous year's limit of 115,000.
Moreover, the new rules allow an unlimited number of these skilled immigrant workers at universities and other nonprofit institutions, where an estimated 50,000 to 75,000 of the H-1B workers are employed.
The total number of H-1B workers in the United States is estimated at 500,000, according to a leading expert on the visas, B. Lindsay Lowell. Mr. Lowell is a demographer with the University of Southern California.
Although industries did not reach the cap in 2001, Mr. Lowell said last week that the overall trends have not changed.
"The numbers of H-1Bs are up, and strongly so," he said.
With Americans going jobless, critics of the H-1B program are raising new questions.
"The number of H-1B work visas is up this year, even though the job market is down," said Norman Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California at Davis.
"There is a big problem here. What is happening is that employers, given the economic downturn, are even more anxious to save money by hiring H-1Bs than before."
Although foreign workers are supposed to be paid prevailing wages, critics charge that some accept lower salaries and fewer benefits than Americans in the same field.
The Labor Department's announcement last week that the jobless rate had jumped to 5.7 percent brought a renewed protest from Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, who has proposed cutting the annual cap for H-1Bs to the pre-1998 level of 65,000.
"I am asking the administration and any member of Congress to justify handing out jobs to foreign workers while Americans get pink slips," Mr. Tancredo said.
Defenders of the visa program respond that foreign workers are essential, recession or not, to give American industries a competitive edge.
"Companies need to hire the best people for a job," said Jeff Lande, an official with the Information Technology Association of America.
"If they can find that here, great. If not, they need to find it elsewhere."
The technology trade group, which includes computer and telecommunication interests, has been lobbying for lifting limits on H-1Bs.
Foreign hiring has declined recently, Mr. Lande said, but in some specialized computer fields there still are not enough Americans to fill the jobs.

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