With The H-1B Visa Cap Filled In Record Time, Reform Is In The Air

If changes to the controversial foreign worker program happen, they'll likely occur this year and be tied to increases in the visa cap.
Reform is unlikely to go forward unless it's tied to a cap increase, and Grassley isn't opposed to raising the cap, a spokeswoman says. A Senate debate on the immigration issue is expected in two months, she says.

This looks like a make-or-break moment for H-1B reform. If it doesn't happen this year, it's not going to happen in 2008, when politicians will be focusing on the presidential election and their own re-elections. "If we get action, it'll be before '08," says Robert Hoffman, Oracle's VP of government and public affairs and co-chair of Compete America, whose 30 or so members push the tech industry's immigration agenda.

Hoffman says the H-1B program gets a bad rap partly because it's a "catch-all"--it covers people that companies bring to the U.S. for short-term stints and people that companies are trying to get on a permanent-resident track. More than 90% of Oracle's visa workers are trying to stay in the United States and are on the path to permanent residency, Hoffman says.

It may be controversial that companies import employees under H-1B visas just to train them and then return them to other countries, but it's a perfectly legal use if they pay prevailing wages--the visa is temporary. It's also a practice their U.S. business customers quietly support, as they want their offshore teams to be well trained.

If the goal is to make it easier for foreign talent to permanently stay in the U.S., some see green card reforms as a smarter approach than more H-1B visas. Hoffman notes the green card process has long waits and quotas that end up frustrating many people, driving them to leave the United States. The sidelined SKIL bill proposed streamlined green card processes and a new visa class, F-4, to let foreign students with degrees from U.S. schools get jobs in this country with a path to permanent residency. "We can absorb the highly skilled worker best with green cards," Hira says.

The risk with Washington's approach is that it mashes issues like H-1B visa reforms with a larger, comprehensive immigration reform bill, so "high-skill versus low-skill" issues become conflated, says Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Atkinson says the most-needed reform is for the Labor Department to enforce rules to pay visa holders prevailing wages.

When it comes to wages, Kim Berry, president of the Programmers Guild, offers up his own idea as a deterrent to H-1B abuse. If wage is a measure of skill and scarcity, "why doesn't [USCIS] grant the visas to the highest-paying candidates, rather than use a lottery?" he suggests.

Not likely. But for all those looking to reform or ramp up the H-1B program, this is the year to try.

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