Feb 17, 2006 6:06 am US/Central

Debate Over Visas For High-Tech Workers

(AP) Minneapolis Some high-tech Minnesota companies that rely on special visas to hire technical expertise from around the world are arguing that more of those select visas must be issued each year.

About 65,000 of the H-1B visas are issued nationwide each year, including to specialists who work for Minnesota companies like Cargill Inc. and the Mayo Clinic. The H-1B is a temporary visa that allows technical specialists with at least a college degree to work up to six years in the United States.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and President Bush are among the advocates of raising the number of H-1B visas, saying companies need the expertise to compete. Opponents include some professional groups that say the visas take jobs from Americans and drive down the going pay rate in some technical fields.

Pawlenty announced his push for more H-1B visas as a counterpart to his proposals to crack down on illegal immigrants.

Many who believe that the governor's hard-line stance on illegal immigrants ignores those workers' importance to the state's economy nonetheless support the governor's position on H-1Bs.

"The H1-B is the bread and butter of U.S. employers who need more high-skilled workers," said Loan Huynh, a Minneapolis lawyer and chairperson of the Minnesota-Dakotas Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Employers tend to use them to hire top foreign specialists, cover shortages of U.S. workers in some technical areas and build a global workforce.

"Fifty percent of Cargill's business is outside the United States, so we need to source talent globally," said Jill Wohlrabe, human resource manager for the strategy and business development unit.

Since the Mayo Clinic is a nonprofit research and educational institution, its hiring of foreigners isn't limited by the annual H-1B limit.

It has about 300 H-1B employees across all its sites, said Chris Wendt, an attorney in Mayo's international personnel office in Rochester.

For new hires, he said, "if the best candidate turns out to be a foreign national, we will go through the process to make the H-1B happen."

They did that for the world's leading expert on the genetic basis of a certain kidney disease, and for a researcher investigating whether a substance in green tea can cure or alleviate leukemia, Wendt said. "We would be a lesser place without the H-1Bs, and the benefits to our patients would be lesser in their absence," said Bruce Larson, director of the international personnel office.

At CS Solutions Inc. in Bloomington, company owners urgently hope for an increase in H-1B visas. It is an information technology services company specializing in finance clients, and its business is picking up so quickly that chief executive Srinivas Thirunagari expects his staff -- 125 in the United States and 60 in India -- to double by the end of this year.

The U.S. staff includes 11 nationalities, with almost half working with H-1B visas, said Paul Kuttikadan, the company's chief operating officer.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA, based in Washington, D.C., is among the groups opposing a higher number of H-1B visas. The visas were set up to fill technical shortages, but there are now more engineers than jobs in some industries, said President Ralph Wyndrum.

"We think the H-1B has been abused so that it is not now a last resort but a first option," he said.

Also, many employers ignore the requirement to pay H1-B workers the prevailing wage, he said, setting up low-priced competition to U.S. workers. He cited a December report by the nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies in Washington that said H1-B computer programmers earn an average of $13,000 a year less than the going wage.

In another assessment, the White House Office of Management and Budget cautioned last year that the program has so little oversight that it's "vulnerable to fraud or abuse."