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Another Day, Another H-1B Visa Reform Bill

The new bill looks to raise the current annual ceiling on H-1B visas from 65,000 to 115,000 this year, with provisions to adjust the annual cap as high as 180,000 based on market conditions.
A new bi-partisan bill to raise the H-1B visa cap and impose reforms to prevent visa abuse and fraud was introduced on Tuesday by Senators Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).

The Skilled Worker Immigration and Fairness Act of 2007 is the latest bill introduced in Congress in recent months proposing changes to the H-1B visa program, the most common visa used by foreign-born technology professionals working in the U.S.

The new Lieberman-Hagel bill looks to raise the current annual ceiling on H-1B visas from 65,000 to 115,000 this year, with provisions to adjust the annual cap as high as 180,000 based on market conditions. The bill's proposal to raise the H-1B cap are similar to the H-1B increases in other bills that have been introduced this year, as well as in Congress last year.

However, the new Lieberman-Hagel bill also comes only one day after two other U.S. senators, Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who are both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Refugees, sent letters to nine Indian firms asking for details on how they use their H-1B visas. Among the companies sent letters was Tata Consultancy Services, Wipro, Santyam, and Infosys, all among the most frequent users of the H-1B visa program.

In April, Grassley and Durbin also introduced a bill to reform the H-1B and L-1 visa programs. L-1 visas, for which there isn't an annual cap, are used by managers of multinational companies.

While the Durbin-Grassley legislation doesn't look to raise the H-1B cap as the new Lieberman-Hagel bill proposes, both bills proposes similar H-1B reforms to prevent abuse and fraud.

Among the reforms in the Lieberman-Hagel bill are authorizing the Dept. of Labor to ramp up staff to investigate and enforce the H-1B program; prohibiting employers from advertising jobs as exclusively open to H-1B visa holders; providing that employers with 50 employees cannot have more than half of their workforce on H-1B visas.

Based on filings with the Security and Exchange commission, Infosys, Satyam and Wipro all rely on H-1B workers for the majority of their U.S. staff.

Not everyone is satisfied with the anti-abuse provisions in the new Lieberman-Hagel bill. Ron Hira, assistant professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology and a research associate on leave from the Economic Policy Institute, says the Lieberman-Hagel bill is watered down compared to the anti-abuse and anti-fraud provisions in the Durbin-Grassley legislation.

"The two most important provisions of Durbin-Grassley are missing from Lieberman-Hagel," Hira wrote in an e-mail to InformationWeek. Those two provisions missing from the latest reform bill but included in Durbin-Grassley legislation are focused on "fixing the prevailing wage" and "ensuring there is a labor market test for all firms to prevent displacement of U.S. workers and ensure good faith efforts of recruiting and hiring US workers," he wrote.

Many employers who use H-1B visa workers skirt around paying those people the prevailing wages expected by Americans doing the same work in the U.S, critics of the H-1B program charge.