High-tech companies lobby for more visas

Jane Larson
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 13, 2005 12:00 AM

High-tech employers are lobbying Congress to raise a cap on visas for specialty workers and allow an additional 30,000 such workers into the United States each year.

Companies say that would give them more flexibility to put the world's best and brightest to work in America instead of in competing countries. They say it would increase the chances of employees developing groundbreaking innovations in the United States. But an increase in the number of these visas could create tougher job competition for American workers.

"It's a major, major issue for Arizona companies," said Shoshana Tancer, a Phoenix lawyer and member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "It's not just the giant high-tech companies. It is the small businesses that want people. They've graduated with master's degrees and they want to work in the United States for a time, and they have the skills (small businesses) need." advertisement

Business organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers, high-tech trade association AeA and Compete America are lobbying for the increase. High-tech companies including Intel Corp., Motorola Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are supporters.

The cap would cover H-1B visas, a category that allows workers in specialty occupations to work in the United States for up to six years. They are admitted on the basis of their professional education, skills or experience, and employers are required to seek U.S. workers first and attest that they have not laid off a similarly qualified U.S. worker. For immigrants, an H-1B is often a prelude to applying for status as a legal permanent resident.

This year, for the first time, the entire allotment of visas was claimed before the fiscal year began. Some 65,000 H-1B visas were available for fiscal 2006, which started Oct. 1, and all those were gone in August. No more visas will be available until October 2007.

"We support the increase because the current cap does not correlate to market demand," said Tracy Koon, director of corporate affairs for Intel. "The current cap methodology is not flexible to changing business needs."

Koon said Intel hires foreign nationals only when it cannot find U.S. workers with the education and skills it needs. Raising the cap would have minimal impact on Intel this year, because the company planned ahead for staffing, she said. But if a solution isn't found in the long run "and we can't hire the talent we need in the U.S., we will be forced to go where the talent is," she said.

The growing national controversy over immigration has made other employers reluctant to publicly discuss their use of H-1B visas. Organizations such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform and NumbersUSA, already vocal on illegal immigration, have taken positions against H-1B visas.

"We don't see any reason at this point for them to increase H-1Bs," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for FAIR. "It's in the interest of the companies to bring in as many as they can, but the government has an obligation to protect the jobs and interests of Americans."

Supporters are pushing Congress to raise the cap this year as a short-term solution, but want the issue of temporary workers to be decided as part of broader immigration reform expected next year.

"These are short-term solutions we hope get us through to the broader, comprehensive immigration reform debate," said Sandra Boyd, vice president of human resources policy for the National Association of Manufacturers and chair of Compete America.

The pool of highly skilled workers entering the state on temporary-worker visas is relatively small.

Some 5,918 immigrants came to Arizona on H-1B visas in fiscal 2004. They included engineers, nurses, athletes and others with specialized skills, according to U.S. Customs and Immigration Service statistics. The number has hovered around 5,000 since rebounding from a low of 3,717 in fiscal 1999. Spouses and children of temporary workers totaled 1,731 in fiscal 2004, compared to 1,376 five years earlier.

High-tech companies say they need additional visas because much high-paying, specialty work can be done anywhere, and worldwide competition for top talent has grown fierce. Opponents say businesses seek out H-1B visa holders because they can pay them substantially less than American workers.

A Congressional Budget Office study on immigrants in the U.S. labor market, released last month, found the pay difference was not dramatic. Foreign-born men from countries other than Mexico or Central America earned 10 percent less in 2004 than did native-born men, adjusted for education and experience, according to the study. Foreign-born women earned 3 percent less.

Demand for the H-1B visa is growing, supporters say, because American universities are not graduating enough scientists and engineers. And American-born graduates are being snapped up by defense companies, whose employees must be U.S. natives to obtain security clearances.

"If we were able to graduate more students, we wouldn't have the problem, and that's a national occurrence," said Herb Finkelstein, industrial/government liaison in Arizona State University's Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering.

Declining enrollments in engineering programs have been blamed on factors ranging from students' weak preparation in math and science to the lack of a national imperative such as the 1960s vision of landing on the moon.

High-tech employment, which plummeted in the 2001-2002 tech downturn, has rebounded. In November, 2.2 percent of architectural and engineering workers and 2 percent of computer and mathematical workers were unemployed, compared to 4.8 percent of the total workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

IEEE-USA, an association for electrical and electronics engineers, thinks rates are down at least partly because discouraged workers have left the field, spokesman Chris McManes said. The organization thinks the H-1B cap is fine where it is, and that any reform should be part of a broader immigration debate instead of budget wrangling, he said.

High-tech employers petitioning for H-1B visas the past two years include Motorola, which sought nearly 600 for Arizona-based workers, and Freescale Semiconductor Inc., which requested nearly 200, according to Customs.

"Our Arizona operations include a number of very, very specific and technical jobs," Freescale spokesman Glaston Ford said. He declined to say which jobs the company has filled with H-1B workers, but said its needs include skills in radio-frequency and analog research and development, and in specialty materials used to make computer chips.

"There are areas where a specific skill set can be very, very narrow," he said. "Sometimes we can't find the skills locally and we have to go international."

The proposed increase wouldn't directly affect Freescale, he said.

"We believe the industry needs more flexibility in addressing specific skill sets, and a higher cap allows more flexibility," he said.

The proposal to raise the cap is a small part of the massive federal budget bill being considered in Congress. The Senate-passed version includes the extra visas; the House version does not. A conference committee is expected to come up with a compromise by year-end on the many issues, including visas, that separate the two chambers' bills.

The issue is part of the budget debate because the Senate version proposes to raise the fee employers pay for workers' H-1B visas $500 each.

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., said at an Intel briefing this month that he doubts the increase will be approved this year. Smith, who supports the higher cap, said anti-immigration forces combined with the fact that visas are a collateral issue to the overall budget make passage unlikely. He predicted multifaceted reform next year.

"It would be tremendously important to keeping the brain power coming here and prevent the brain drain," he said.