Rumors Swirl Around Future of Popular H-1B Visa Program

Hewlett Packard technicians work on nanotechnology research in a clean room at HP headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2007. HP researchers say they have developed a way to integrate nanotechnology and traditional circuitry designs in a specific kind of programmable computer chip, an advance that could help companies dramatically reduce the amount of energy their chips use to process information while continuing to manufacture ever-smaller devices. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
April 3, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

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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