Immigration bill would add visas for tech workers

Via The San Fransisco Chronical
Friday, March 10, 2006

Buried in the Senate’s giant immigration bill — hardly noticed amid a fierce
debate over a guest-worker program for unskilled laborers — are provisions that
would open the country’s doors to highly skilled immigrants for science, math,
technology and engineering jobs.

The provisions were sought by Silicon Valley tech companies and enjoy
significant bipartisan support amid concern that the United States might lose
its lead in technology. They would broaden avenues to legal immigration for
foreign tech workers and would put those with advanced degrees on an automatic
path to permanent residence should they want it.

The measures include nearly doubling the number of H-1B skilled-worker
temporary visas to 115,000 — with an option of raising the cap 20 percent more
each year. H-1B visas were highly controversial in the Bay Area when their
numbers reached a peak of 195,000 in 2003.

Congress had increased the visas during the late 1990s dot-com boom, when
Silicon Valley complained of tech-worker shortages, although native-born
engineers complained that their wages were undermined by cheap labor from India
and China.

With the tech crash and the revelation that some of the Sept. 11, 2001,
hijackers had entered the country on student visas, the political climate for
foreign workers darkened, and Congress quietly allowed the number of H-1B visas
to plummet back to 65,000 a year.

The cap was reached in August — in effect turning off the tap of the visas
for 14 months. A special exemption of 20,000 visas for workers with advanced
degrees was reached in January.

“We’re in a bad crunch right now,” said Laura Reiff, head of the Essential
Worker Immigration Coalition, a business umbrella group backing more
immigration. “We are totally jammed on immigrant visas, the green card category,
and totally jammed on H-1B visas. You can’t bring in tech workers right now.”

Alarm in Washington has shifted from student hijackers to U.S.
competitiveness. Indian and Chinese students face brighter prospects in their
own booming economies, and the fear now is that they no longer want to come to
the United States.

The new skilled immigration measures are part of a controversial 300-page
bill by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., now being
rewritten by the committee with the goal of reaching the Senate floor by the end
of the month.

Other provisions include a new F-4 visa category for students pursuing
advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. These
students would be granted permanent residence if they find a job in their field
and pay a $1,000 fee toward scholarships and training of U.S. workers.

Labor certification rules also would be streamlined for foreigners holding
the desired advanced degrees from a U.S. university. Immigrants with advanced
degrees in the desired fields, as well as those of “extraordinary ability” and
“outstanding professors and researchers,” would also get an exemption from the
cap on employment-based green cards and slots for permanent residence.

“The U.S. is educating these people,” said Kara Calvert, director of
government relations for the Information Technology Industry Council, a tech
industry group. “This allows these students to remain in the U.S. and contribute
to the U.S. economy.”

The provisions for highly skilled workers enjoy support in both parties in
the Senate and in the Bush administration after a raft of high-profile studies
have warned that the United States is not producing enough math and science
students and is in danger of losing its global edge in innovation to India and
China.

Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy echoed many in the tech industry at a
conference in Washington on Wednesday when he warned that if skilled immigration
is not expanded, “There will be a great sucking sound of innovation out of the
U.S.”

Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr suggested at a technology summit
last fall that the United States “should staple a green card to every kid, every
foreign national that graduates with a degree in engineering and science, so
that they stay here. Imagine innovation in America without Andy Grove, without
Jerry Yang, without Sergey Brin — Hungarian, Chinese, Russian. These immigrants
have contributed enormously to innovation and our well-being.”

But House Republicans are cool toward any increase in legal immigration,
including skilled workers, and are at sharp odds with the White House. They
passed a bill in December to crack down on border enforcement, calling for
construction of a 700-mile fence on the border with Mexico.

House Republicans omitted skilled immigration from their “Innovation and
Competitiveness Act,” released with much pomp last week, prompting House
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, to blast the proposal as doing
nothing “to ensure that the best and brightest from around the world are able to
contribute to innovation in the United States.”

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