The high-tech community is waiting anxiously to see how quickly the Homeland Security Department will put the brakes on employers’ ability to bring foreign workers into the country. It could be very soon. On Monday, DHS started accepting petitions for H-1B visas for high-skilled foreign workers who would start their U.S. jobs in October. Limited to 85,000 for the entire 2014 fiscal year, the visas are expected to run out within a few weeks.
But the tech and manufacturing communities are also riveted to the “Gang of Eight” senators putting the final touches on a broader immigration bill. While the negotiators are keeping quiet on the details of the deal, rumors are swirling about how the legislation treats the H-1B program. Most observers expect the annual cap on H-1B visas to be raised, perhaps to more than double the current level. But there are also rumblings of increased fees that could be as high as $10,000 per H-1B worker for companies that hire lots of them.
DHS is expected to announce the H-1B availability (or lack thereof) for FY2014 next week. “We believe it will not be long before they are all taken,” said Scott Corley, executive director of Compete America, a coalition of tech and engineering companies.
This is a perennial problem for the technology and manufacturing sectors, which routinely bring in foreign engineers or computer whizzes when they can’t find suitable U.S. workers to fill openings. DHS accepts petitions for H-1B visas six months before the fiscal year in which they are issued, and it is not uncommon for the visas to run out in a few days.
This year, the H-1B application lottery carries more political weight because it occurs as lawmakers are drafting changes to the H-1B program as part of a larger immigration bill. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has indicated a willingness to increase the annual H-1B cap, which would be good news for tech companies. “We’re hitting the cap on highly skilled immigrants so quickly because these workers contribute so much to the American economy,” said Business Roundtable Research Director Matt Sonnesyn. “We need to raise the caps on highly skilled immigrant categories and avoid overly bureaucratic rules that would inhibit access to these workers.”
The bad news for business is that the H-1B program is unpopular among some Republicans and Democrats. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., a “gang” member, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who is not one of the negotiators, have long advocated H-1B changes that would severely curtail the program. Grassley recently reintroduced his H-1B bill to prohibit visas for companies whose workforces are made up of more than half H-1B workers. Durbin generally sponsors that legislation with Grassley, but he bowed out this time in deference to the Gang of Eight negotiations.
There are H-1B haters outside Congress as well. Among them is the IEEE-USA, an association of professional engineers. IEEE-USA has no qualms with foreign technicians in the United States as long as they are given green cards to allow them to stay in the country and become citizens. But, like Grassley and Durbin, IEEE-USA worries that foreign companies abuse the program by cycling foreign workers in and out of the country to build their businesses outside of the United States. “This program has become more and more and more the vehicle for outsourcers,” said IEEE-USA spokesman Bruce Morrison. “People get hands-on expertise [in the United States], then they can go back abroad and their work can be sold from abroad rather than in the United States, and of course the costs are much lower.”
Schumer, meanwhile, is fond of hiking the fees for H-1B visas instead of outright banning them for companies that make heavy use of them. In 2010, he shepherded legislation through Congress to boost border security and paid for it by hiking the H-1B application fee by $2,000 each for companies with more than 50 employees and more than 50 percent of their workers on H-1B visas. Lobbyists say the Gang of Eight’s deal could include some type of sliding upward scale, in which the price of an H-1B visa escalates with the company’s percentage of H-1B workers.
If the fees are as high as some lobbyists think they are — $10,000 for each H-1B worker — that could change business models for some companies. That may be the goal of lawmakers, but it will stir up a lot of consternation in high-tech and manufacturing companies.
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