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IT companies may not meet 2001 visa cap


By Patrick Thibodeau

WASHINGTON (IDG) -- The United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is expected to release statistics showing that businesses failed to use all the H-1B visas available in the fiscal year that ended September 30.

After a tremendous lobbying push by industry groups, Congress last year agreed to increase the controversial H-1B visa cap to 195,000 in the just-ended fiscal year, up from the previously approved level of 107,500 . By the end of July, however, the INS had approved 138,000 petitions for the visas.

And based on that trend, industry groups expect the final number will be short of the cap. INFOCENTER
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Even if the 195,000 cap isn't officially reached, the number of H-1B petitions granted this year by the INS could be higher. Congress exempted people who take jobs at universities or research institutions, and applications pending in fiscal year 2000 could be filled this year and not counted as part of the cap.

The H-1B program is one of the most contentious issues facing the tech community. Critics charge that international workers are being hired in many instances because of a willingness to work for lower wages and fewer benefits. Industry groups argue that the U.S. isn't supplying enough workers with technical skills to meet demand. H-1B employees, hired for certain technical skills, can work in the U.S. for six years and possibly longer under some exceptions through the visa program.

The battle over H-1B visas is far from over. The cap will decline to 65,000 at the end of the 2003 fiscal year, which means that industry groups will have to renew their lobbying of Congress at about this time next year. Unless the economy makes a turnaround, keeping the cap at the current level could be difficult, said Lynn Shotwell, director of government relations at the American Council on International Personnel Inc.

Even so, despite the current economic turndown, "I think the arguments are just as strong" for H-1B, she said.

H-1B opponents believe it would be in Congress' interest to lower the cap to stimulate domestic hiring. Doing so "would clearly be beneficial for American workers and new college graduates," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.

But Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), said that if the cap isn't reached, "it shows that market forces are working and employers are not abusing the program. It's a cap, not a required number," he said.

An ITAA study this spring estimated the U.S. IT workforce at 10.4 million people and a projected demand for new workers this year of approximately 900,000 -- down from a demand for 1.6 million new workers last year. Those figures haven't been updated since then.

Amar Veda, a spokesman for the Immigrants Support Network in Budd Lake, New Jersey -- an organization that helps H-1B visa holders -- said the INS statistics on H-1B use are misleading and reflect only those with approved petitions, not people who have actually come to the U.S. for work.

"Many of the companies get the petitions approved and keep them in reserve, and they are not used," said Veda. And since the September 11 terrorist attacks, no one is coming to the U.S. "There are no jobs. ... In fact, people are going back," he said.

For Norman Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California at Davis and a leading critic of the H-1B program, the argument against the visas is more than academic. Matloff said one student of his who graduated in March with a solid B+ in computer science and engineering as well as some industrial experience, a person with "all the right things," still has not found a job.

"Employers are still hiring H-1Bs instead of him," said Matloff.




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