- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The United States is more likely to fall behind its rivals in technological innovation because the government restricts the number of skilled workers that companies are permitted to hire from overseas, Bill Gates said yesterday.

The chairman and “chief software architect” of Microsoft Corp. was one of six panelists who discussed the state of technology in the United States during a forum at the Library of Congress.

He used the occasion to sharply criticize the government’s restrictions on H-1B visas, which allow highly skilled foreign workers to come to the United States for six years to fill jobs in information technology and other industries that experience chronic shortages.

“In the long run, the United States should be allowing smart people to come to the country. The theory behind the H-1B [restrictions] — that too many smart people are coming here — that’s really questionable,” Mr. Gates said.

Congress has capped the number of H-1B visas that the United States issues annually at 65,000. During the technology boom in the late 1990s, lawmakers raised the cap, but it was returned to normal levels after the tech sector faded in 2001.

Executives have been lobbying the government to raise the restriction again now that the industry has recovered.

Mr. Gates went one step further yesterday, calling for the caps to be abolished. When asked what policy changes he would seek if he were king, he said he would “certainly get rid of the H-1B visa cap. That’s one of the easiest decisions.”

He also said he would seek improvements in public schools and more research spending by the government.

Mr. Gates dismissed the notion that the H-1B visas should be kept in place in order to make it harder for foreigners to enter the United States during the nation’s war on terror.

“It’s very dangerous. The world is scary — let’s cut back on trade. The world is scary — let’s cut back on immigration,” he said in a mocking tone.

Some labor groups criticized Mr. Gates’ remarks.

Marcus Courtney, organizer of the Seattle-based Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, told the Associated Press that it is “increasingly difficult” for computer programmers in the United States to find work.

“There is no support in the American public for completely abolishing the H1-B visa program and allowing companies to import foreign labor for these high-paying jobs,” he said.

Almost 6 percent of information-technology employees were out of work last year versus 5.5 percent of all workers, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

Two of Mr. Gates’ fellow panelists were divided on his position.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said he feared that the immigration restrictions would transform the United States into “fortress America.”

But Rep. David Dreier, California Republican, said it would be “naive” to not acknowledge the nation’s “very serious border control problem.”

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