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7/5/2007
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Microsoft Looks To Dodge Visa Limits With Canadian Software Center

The company says the new center will allow it to "recruit and retain highly skilled people affected by immigration issues in the U.S." and station them near its Washington headquarters.

Among the more vocal advocates for the defunct immigration reform bill was software maker Microsoft. The company, led by chairman Bill Gates, has long argued that the U.S. needs to raise caps on the number of visas it grants each year to foreign high-tech workers.

The immigration bill would have doubled the number of so-called H-1B visas, but it died in the Senate last week. Now, Microsoft appears to be taking a different tack.

The company on Thursday said it would open a new software development center in Canada this fall and stock it with "highly skilled people affected by immigration issues in the U.S." Microsoft said it plans to open the center in the vicinity of Vancouver, B.C. -- about a two-hour drive from its Redmond, Wash., headquarters.

Only a handful of other, major Microsoft software development facilities -- in Ireland, Denmark, and Israel -- are located outside the U.S. Microsoft maintains an office in Toronto primarily to oversee Canadian sales and marketing efforts.

Microsoft did not disclose how much it expects to invest in the Vancouver site. A company spokesman said the facility will initially house 200 workers, "with room to grow." The spokesman said the Vancouver workers would likely develop software for the full range of Microsoft's products.

Microsoft in a statement said the Vancouver center would attract workers "from all parts of the world."

"The Vancouver area is a global gateway with a diverse population, is close to Microsoft's corporate offices in Redmond, and allows the company to recruit and retain highly skilled people affected by immigration issues in the U.S.," Microsoft said.

Virtually all major U.S. tech firms have been pushing for a relaxation of limits on the number of foreign high-tech workers allowed into the country, arguing that the U.S. faces a shortage of such individuals. Conversely, worker groups such as the Programmers Guild claim that no such shortage exists and say tech vendors simply want to import cheap labor.

Microsoft's spokesman said the timing of Thursday's announcement is not directly related to last week's demise in the Senate of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, which would have roughly doubled the current 65,000 H-1B visa cap. "It's not a direct response, but we're being upfront about the fact that immigration issues factored into the decision," said the spokesman.

With a software center in Vancouver, Microsoft could bring programmers from India and other low-cost countries to North America and place them within a two-hour drive of Redmond without having to obtain H-1B visas for them, assuming the workers could obtain Canadian employment authorization. It would also offer a place for Microsoft to station foreign workers already in the U.S. whose visas are close to expiration.

Microsoft's spokesman said the Vancouver center would be staffed with "a mix" of Canadian-born workers and workers from other countries.

In March, Gates told the Senate that he would like to see the H-1B visa cap eventually increased to 300,000. But with no cap raise imminent, Microsoft is looking north. The big question: will other U.S. tech giants follow suit?

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