- The Washington Times - Monday, April 7, 2014

It took less than a week for businesses to apply for all 85,000 specialty visas under the government’s H-1B program, which is generally used to bring high-tech workers into the country, and the quick pace could be the spark that reignites the immigration debate in Congress this year.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said this year’s application period, which began April 1, had already crossed the limit by Monday, or within the first five business days — a signal, analysts said, both of an economy on the rebound, and of continued strong demand for high-skilled foreign workers.

Business groups pleaded with Congress to let the numbers revive the stalled immigration debate, saying the economy is being held back by companies’ inability to go get the workers they want.

“We’ve hit too many outdated H-1B limits and seen green card backlogs grow far too much. The time is now for Washington to enact meaningful immigration reform,” said Greg Brown, chairman & CEO of Motorola Solutions and chairman of the Business Roundtable’s immigration committee. “The interest in H-1B visas is another indicator of system-wide deficiencies that are stunting growth but can be fixed by action in Washington.”

But the issue isn’t as cut-and-dry for critics, who say the H-1B program lets employers undercut American workers and use foreigners — in some cases, even bringing in workers to train them so they can run overseas operations that take jobs away from the U.S.

“If people are here and available, and perhaps need some retraining or perhaps aren’t willing to work for lower wages, it’s just a shame that these companies won’t hire them,” said Chris McManes, spokesman for IEEE-USA, which advocates for engineering and high-tech workers.

He said there are some legitimate uses for H-1B visas, but a better solution would be to pass a bill boosting the number of green cards, or permanent legal status, and to give more of them on the basis of high-skilled employment.

There is broad agreement in Congress on the need to bring in more high-tech workers, and House Republicans have even advanced a bill that would open up more green cards for those who earn advanced math, science, engineering or technology degrees from American universities.

Indeed, for years, analysts have said the U.S. immigration system rewards family reunification more than it rewards those with critical skills that could boost the economy.

But Democrats argue border security, stricter interior enforcement, legalization of illegal immigrants and a rewrite of the legal immigration system should all be tied together. That means the popular stand-along proposal has become trapped in the broader immigration debate.

“It’s basically the chip that’s holding that whole comprehensive bill together,” said Neil Ruiz, a senior policy analyst at the Brookings Institution.

He said Senate Democrats will now have to grapple with whether they are willing to uncouple the high-skilled workers from the rest of the debate.

Already, some immigrant-rights advocates have argued that tying all illegal immigrants together could jeopardizes chances for legalization for younger ones, known as Dreamers after the Dream Act legislation.

Democrats have calculated that the only way to get a broad legalization is to keep businesses and unions in the same coalition.

However, there could be major economic benefits to passing just the high-tech bill alone. The Congressional Budget Office has calculated that about two-thirds of the benefits that expanded immigration would bring to the federal budget could be earned by passing the House’s high-tech bill.

But some demographers argue the U.S. doesn’t need an influx of tech workers, saying there are two to three times as many graduates with high-tech degrees as there are jobs in those fields.

USCIS, the federal agency that administers the H-1B visa program, said it still doesn’t know exactly how many applications came in during the initial five-year period.

Last year the government received nearly 130,000 applications in the first five days.

According to the law, businesses have at least five days to file applications. If more than 85,000 are received in that period, a lottery is held to determine which applicants will end up getting the slots.

Congress has adjusted the cap number several times in the past. In the late 1990s it was set at 115,000 workers, which was raised to 195,000 from 2001 through 2003, before dropping down to just 65,000 in 2004 and 2005.

In 2006, Congress added an additional 20,000 visas specifically for graduates of American universities, bringing the cap total to 85,000.

H-1B visas generally allow a worker to remain in the U.S. for up to six years.

Mr. Ruiz, the Brookings scholar, said the H-1B program is a catch-all for a broad swath of folks: Some are workers who would like to get green cards, but are blocked by per-country limits, so they take short-term visas instead. Others are recent graduates from American schools who want to stay in the country a while longer. Still others want to start businesses here.

He said one solution would be to fix the green card situation, and separate out the various categories of H-1B visa applicants.

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