Monday, December 15, 2003

As the economy picks up steam, a long-standing debate over foreign workers will, too.

Trade groups and immigration attorneys are predicting that U.S. companies will face a shortage of highly skilled workers early next year, even while many Americans continue to search for work.

If highly qualified workers become hard to find, it will renew a debate over the H-1B program, opposed by labor groups that argue that the visas squeeze out American workers in favor of cheaper labor, but coveted by companies that want more latitude to hire temporary foreign workers.

The next debate over the three-year visas, which can be renewed once, could involve a proposal that would make the number of visas available last longer.

The debate over H-1B visas has not been waged since the collapse of the technology industry, which shed almost 500,000 jobs last year.

The economy has shown signs of improvement, including growing at an 8.2 percent annual rate in the third quarter, the fastest pace in two decades.

“As the economy improves, we’ll see these issues come front and center again,” said Sandy Boyd, chairwoman of American Business for Legal Immigration.

A sympathetic Congress gave U.S. companies a temporary solution to address labor shortages when it increased the number of visas available, and scores of companies relied on them to hire foreign workers and to bolster work forces.

In fiscal 1999, lawmakers boosted the number of visas available from 65,000 to 115,000. Two years later they increased it again, making 195,000 visas available each fiscal year through Sept. 30, 2003.

But this year, the federal government made just 65,000 visas available under the H-1B program. That is the same number of visas available before the technology boom, the phenomenon that caused businesses to clamor for more visas. Industry groups predict that demand for H-1B visas during this fiscal year will reach about 80,000, because employers say they are emerging from an economic slumber that had prevented them from hiring.

“We’re probably going to run out in spring, and U.S. industry is going to be at a disadvantage,” said Jeff Lande, vice president at the Information Technology Association of America, an Arlington trade group that supports increasing the number of H-1B visas.

Corporations argue that the visa program gives them access to highly skilled workers who aren’t readily available in the country. Colleges and universities simply aren’t producing enough American graduates with degrees in math, science and engineering, according to trade groups.

But many unions oppose increasing the number of foreign workers that companies can hire. The program lets companies give jobs to foreign workers that could be given to unemployed Americans, said Vin O’Neill, senior lobbyist for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc.

Unions also argue that companies endorse the visa program because they can pay temporary foreign workers less than American workers and keep down costs.

“The whole idea of temporary workers has become standard operating procedure,” Mr. O’Neill said.

Instead of relying on the H-1B program, unions want U.S. companies to work harder to persuade Congress to fix immigration laws.

That’s just what the technology industry — and others that are increasing their use of H-1B visas, such as schools and the fast-growing health care industry — wants to do.

An estimated 65 percent of the 78,000 people who received an H-1B visa in fiscal 2002 already were in the United States. Most of them probably were college graduates here, said Thom Stohler, vice president at AEA, a trade group in the District representing technology companies.

Supporters of the H-1B program are beginning to say that those students shouldn’t count against the number of visas Congress makes available each year because many of them are likely to stay in the United States once they obtain permanent residency. Because the immigration process can take years, students and their U.S. employers use H-1B visas to keep them here and working until they become citizens.

“The H-1B program has become a bridge to permanent citizenship,” Mr. Stohler said.

Exempting graduates from U.S. colleges who plan to stay here could prevent companies from using all the visas long before the end of the fiscal year.

It also could prevent another bitter battle between labor groups and companies that want to hire foreign workers.

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