Senate Expected to OK More High-Tech Visas

Election-year legislation to allow high-tech companies to bring in up to 200,000 foreign workers annually faces hurdles in the House despite overwhelming Senate support for the measure.

A bill for raising the ceiling on H-1B visas to 200,000 high-tech workers in each of the next three years never made it out of committee in the House.

An alternate House bill, vehemently opposed by software companies, would lift the ceiling entirely on the six-year visas but condition them to employers’ paying the immigrants at least $40,000 a year and not using them to replace Americans on their payrolls. It was approved by the House Judiciary Committee.

Under present law, the government issued 115,000 H-1B visas during the fiscal year that ended Saturday for skilled workers from abroad. With no new legislation the ceiling would fall to 107,500 this year and to 65,000 next year.

Unqualified Workers vs. Lower Wages

Technology companies contend that 300,000 jobs are going unfilled for lack of qualified workers; labor unions argue the companies want more immigrants to put downward pressure on the wages of Americans holding the same jobs.

The Senate was voting on its version of the H-1B visa bill Tuesday after defeating efforts last week by several Democrats to amend it with other immigration measures that would allow more illegal aliens and political refugees to remain in the United States.

Senate leaders of both parties have predicted the bill would be approved overwhelmingly.

“I suspect when we get to a final vote here, it will be 90 to 10,” Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said.

Despite bipartisan support for letting high-tech companies — major campaign contributors to both parties this election — hire more immigrants, House Republicans have disagreed among themselves on how to do it.

The bill approved by the Judiciary Committee would require companies using the visas to increase the median pay of their U.S. workers in addition to establishing job projections for them.

“I am disappointed that the Senate would increase the number of foreign high-tech workers without including any safeguards for American workers,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chief sponsor of the Judiciary panel’s measure.

Election-Year Tactics

Reps. David Dreier, R-Calif., and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., are sponsoring House legislation supported by high-tech companies and similar to the Senate bill. GOP leaders have refused to bring it out of committee for fear that Democrats would try to use it to force votes on other immigration measures and make opponents appear anti-Hispanic in an election year.

Democrats in both chambers said last week they will try to put some of the measures in one of the spending bills that Congress must pass before adjourning for the year. They include provisions to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States before 1987 and offer permanent residency to more political refugees from Central America and Haiti.

“From a public policy point of view, it worries me that computer whizzes have more value and dignity than a person who cleans toilets or is a gardener,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.

The visa bills are S.2045, H.R. 3183 and H.R. 4227. (See Web links at side.)