More visas, less work

A U.S. Senate committee voted in March to increase the annual cap for H-1B visas from 65,000 to 115,000, amid renewed debate over whether technology companies are using the program to replace American workers with cheaper foreign labour.

The cap increase, which would allow technology companies to hire more foreign workers for hard-to-fill technology jobs such as programming, is part of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, which Congress began debating in March. The larger measure is controversial because of disagreements about how to manage illegal immigration.

The H-1B visa provisions also would provide for future increases once the proposed 115,000 cap is reached and would eliminate any visa cap for advanced-degree holders. About 20,000 visas not included in the 65,000 cap were issued last year to advanced-degree holders.

Technology companies such as Microsoft Corp. have called on Congress to increase the cap, saying they often can’t find qualified U.S. workers to fill high-level tech jobs and need the foreign workers in order to remain competitive. The 65,000 cap was reached last year in the first month the visas were offered. “U.S. businesses should have access to the best and brightest workers in the world,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (Republican-Virginia) at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims.

According to a recent survey by the Society for Information Management, technology executives are concerned about the supply of workers who can fill entry-level programmer and systems analyst positions, as well as midlevel jobs such as architects and project managers.

But David Huber, a network administrator with 15 years of experience, told the subcommittee that the H-1B program was the reason a utility company laid him off in May 2003 in favor of cheaper foreign workers.

The H-1B program requires companies to pay the prevailing wage to IT workers, but John Miano, a computer programmer for 18 years, told the subcommittee that according to his research, companies paid foreign programmers US$13,000 less than the median wage in the areas in which the companies were located. A recent study by the Center for Immigration Studies reached a similar conclusion.

Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a think tank focusing on trade and immigration issues, disputed Miano’s research, saying the wages of entry-level H-1B hires can’t be accurately compared with those of experienced IT workers. Still, Rep. Steve King (Republican-Iowa) questioned the program’s effects. “We should not have a visa program that allows an employer to lay off U.S. workers in favor of cheaper foreign labor,” King said.

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