- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2006

Increases skilled-worker visas

Buried in the Senate’s giant immigration bill — hardly noticed amid a fierce debate over a guest-worker program for unskilled laborers — are provisions that would admit more immigrants for science, math, technology and engineering jobs.

The provisions were sought by Silicon Valley companies and enjoy significant bipartisan support because of concerns that the United States might lose its lead in technology. They would broaden avenues to legal immigration for foreign technology workers and would put those with advanced degrees on an automatic path to permanent residence, should they want it.

The measures include nearly doubling the number of H-1B skilled-worker temporary visas to 115,000 — with an option of raising the cap 20 percent more each year. H-1B visas reached a peak of 195,000 a year in 2003.

Congress had increased the number of visas during the late 1990s’ dot-com boom, when Silicon Valley complained of technology-worker shortages, although native-born engineers complained that their wages were undermined by cheap labor from India and China.

With the technology crash and the revelation that some of the September 11, 2001, hijackers had entered the country on student visas, the political climate for foreign workers darkened, and Congress quietly allowed the number of H-1B visas to decline to 65,000 a year.

The cap was reached in August, in effect turning off the tap. A special exemption of 20,000 visas for workers with advanced degrees was reached in January.

“We’re in a bad crunch right now,” said Laura Reiff, head of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, a business umbrella group backing more immigration. “We are totally jammed on immigrant visas, the green-card category, and totally jammed on H-1B visas. You can’t bring in tech workers right now.”

Alarm in Washington has shifted from student hijackers to U.S. competitiveness. Indian and Chinese students face brighter prospects in their own booming economies, and the fear now is that they no longer want to come to the United States.

The skilled-immigration measures are part of a 300-page bill by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican. The committee is rewriting the bill with the goal of reaching the Senate floor by the end of the month.

Other provisions include a new F-4 visa category for students pursuing advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. These students would be granted permanent residence if they find jobs in their fields and pay a $1,000 fee toward scholarships and training of U.S. workers.

Labor certification rules also would be streamlined for foreigners holding the desired advanced degrees from a U.S. university. Immigrants with advanced degrees in the desired fields, as well as those of “extraordinary ability” and “outstanding professors and researchers,” also would get an exemption from the cap on employment-based green cards and slots for permanent residence.

• Distributed by Scripps Howard

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