Anger up, visas down: Top 10 H-1B stories of last 12 months

Active year could lead to final H-1B showdown during 2010 immigration reform debate

Even though demand for H-1B visas fell sharply this year, the debate over the program that lets employers temporarily hire foreign technology and other specialty workers has continued to intensify, especially in Congress.

The federal government's fiscal year began today with some 66,700 H-1B visas set to be issued, and nearly 20,000 still available under the cap of 85,000. A year ago, the available issues were reserved long before the start of fiscal 2009 after the government received 163,000 visa petitions within days of April 1, 2008, the first day applications were accepted. Thus, the fiscal 2009 visa winners were selected via a lottery.

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Despite the the waning interest in applying for visas as the economy declined, Congress is gearing up for what may be the final showdown over H-1B, arguably the most heated technology issue today. The status of the visa could be resolved for the long term during the debate expected during fiscal 2010 over comprehensive immigration reform.

A list of fiscal 2009's 10 top H-1B stories, as compiled by Computerworld, follows:

1. Senators Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) filed the H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act of 2009. The bill, which has not yet faced a Congressional hearing, has already become the rallying point for H-1B opponents and a top concern for the technology industry as a whole. The sweeping measure would require companies to post all help wanted ads on the Internet, and first complete "good faith" efforts to fill the posted jobs with U.S. workers. The bill also includes new wage requirements which would raise the salaries of the lowest paid visa holders.

Indian offshore firms appear most concerned about the bill because it would limit the number of visa holders they could employ to 50 percent of their U.S. workforce. Durbin and Grassley are both members of the Senate subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security and positioned to influence any comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

2 : The continuing debate over a comprehensive immigration reform prior to the filing of a bill in Congress. Leading the debate is Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who heads the subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security and is an ardent supporter of the H-1B visa program. Schumer offered a tip about what he wants in a reform bill by inviting former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan to a committee hearing on immigration reform earlier this year. Greenspan called for an end to visa restrictions and said the H-1B cap protects tech workers from global competition. In fact, Greenspan called the U.S. tech workers a "privileged elite."

3. The indication that Congress would be willing to set restrictions on the H-1B visa program when it approved the $700 billion Trouble Asset Relief Program (TARP) in February. An amendment to the bailout bill by Sens. Grassley and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) imposed H-1B restrictions on banks that receive bailout funds. The restriction requires that the banks make a good-faith effort to hire U.S. workers, though it didn't limit their use of offshore outsourcing firms. The measure was driven by public anger over the bailout and fears of job losses.

4. The decision by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) to step up enforcement of the H-1B visa petition process, demanding more evidence from companies to support the need for foreign workers. The paper chase was launched following a USCIS report last fall that found nearly 20 percent of H-1B visa applications had problems, which included fraud.

5. A study by researchers at the New York University's Stern School of Business and Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania found evidence that H-1B use is reducing tech wages by as much as 6 percent.

6. Demand for H-1B visas declined, at least temporarily, in recent months. Randall Sidlosca, an immigration attorney at Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, PC in Miami, said the main reason for the decline is the economic downturn, though the TARP restrictions also played a role. The lack of H-1B jobs has prompted many foreign national students in U.S. universities to seek additional degrees, according to Sarah Hawk, who heads the immigration practice at Fisher & Phillips LLP in Atlanta.

7. The U.S. Department of Justice filed H-1B fraud charges against a dozen people and companies, alleging that they were "displacing qualified American workers," by avoiding prevailing wage laws, undercutting tech worker salaries, and treating H-1B workers as itinerant laborers. Some say it was the largest H-1B enforcement action ever taken by the federal government on the H-1B program.

8. President Barack Obama appointed strong supporters of H-1B visas to positions in his administration. The Obama administration has yet to outline its approach to the H-1B visa issue, but the views of his appointees, or at least the companies they have worked for, are well known. For example, Diana Farrell, deputy director of the National Economic Council, is a former executive at McKinsey & Co., a consulting firm that has produced research that concludes offshore outsourcing is a means to improving the U.S. economy. Janet Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona and now secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the USCIS, is another H-1B advocate. Google Inc. CEO Eric Schmidt, who has also argued against cap restrictions, was appointed to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), along with Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer Craig Mundie. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates has been a leading proponent of ending the visa restrictions.

9. The Programmers Guild's legal challenged a decision by President George W. Bush's administration to increase the term of student visas from one year to 29 months. But the case forced tech workers into a Catch-22 situation after the government argued that the guild and its co-filers didn't have standing to bring a case, which raised the question of who should file the suit.

10. The shrinking IT job market brings the H-1B debate into clearer focus. For the technology industry and tech workers, the H-1B visa is at the heart of the globalization issue. Unless the tech employment picture improves before the immigration reform debate reaches its apex, The H-1B issue will draw ever sharper focus. It is a fight between those who believe H-1B visas are needed to foster economic growth, and those who see the visa as a means for displacing U.S. workers.

This story, "Anger up, visas down: Top 10 H-1B stories of last 12 months" was originally published by Computerworld .

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