Does IT Need More H-1B Visas?
By Pedro Pereira
It has always been so. Humans have always roamed, now assimilating, now displacing.
More often than not, who is displacing whom causes the debate. In
the current furor over immigration, the debate revolves around whether
illegal workers who sneak in mostly through the U.S. southern border
are doing jobs Americans don’t want or are taking them away from
In the high-tech world, a similar debate centers on so-called
H-1B visas, which allow folks from places such as India, Russia and the
Philippines to enter the United States legally to do temporary jobs
that ostensibly would go unfilled for lack of qualified workers.
Employers of H-1B workers include Microsoft, Oracle, Apple and
IBM. Among the strongest supporters of the visa program are folks like
Bill Gates and former Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy.
The government caps the number of H-1B visas annually at
65,000, but if supporters have their way, that number will jump to
115,000. As the debate over illegal immigration continued to rage this
week, a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate to hike the number of
The bill, introduced by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, proposes to
increase the H-1B cap to 115,000, with options to raise the ceiling
annually by 20 percent based on employers’ needs. Some supporters would
love to see the cap pushed back up to the 2001-2003 number of 195,000.
As with all things immigration, H-1B visas are controversial.
Opponents dispute the supporters’ position that visas are necessary to
accommodate a shortage of highly skilled professionals in technology
and related jobs. Almost all H-1B visa holders have bachelor’s degrees,
and about half of them also hold advanced degrees.
Visa holders drive down wages for everybody because employers
pay H-1B visa holders less than they pay American counterparts, say
Of course, the salary differential does not apply to all
employers, and some companies, such as Microsoft, IBM and Apple, are
reputed to pay H-1B holders salaries that are comparable to or higher
than the pay of American counterparts.
Visa supporters say the 65,000 cap is too stingy and stifles
innovation, the argument being visa holders who would otherwise
contribute to technology advances may never set foot in the United
Both sides have valid points.
The H-1B program has a place in our economy. It fills skills gaps and has other benefits.
For instance, channel companies have used money from the fees
paid by employers of H-1B visa workers to train their own staffs on
much-needed IT skills. The money was disbursed by the Department of
Labor through the H-1B Technical Skills Training Grant Program.
The question is whether the government should raise the cap.
Before making that decision, due diligence is needed. Do we truly need
more H-1B visa holders? Are employers doing everything they can to give
the jobs to citizens or permanent residents before resorting to H-1B
visa hires? One way to ensure they do would be to raise the fees.
In addition, employers that abuse the program by paying visa holders less than they would other workers should be penalized.
Furthermore, if we are going to continue importing skilled
workers because they make an important contribution to our economy, we
should reward them accordingly. The pathway to U.S. citizenship for
these folks should be simpler and quicker. First, they must obtain
green cards, approval for which can take years. Citizenship is possible
only after five years of having a green card.
So what should we expect to happen? Most likely Congress will
simply increase the visa cap without any meaningful analysis, and the
debate will rage on. And so it goes with immigration.