Senate Bill 1348 has stirred a great deal of emotion across the United States as of late, in large part because its sweeping approach to immigration reform will affect nearly every sector of the American economy. And though the Title VI headline-grabber provision -- which will create a new Z-class visa for addressing the estimated 12 million illegal aliens now living and working in the United States -- won't likely have a deep impact on the high-tech industry, the bill's point-based immigration policies and proposed changes to H-1B visas are certain to have lasting effects on those pursuing careers in technology.
"The measure would flood the job market and thus reduce job opportunities and wages for Americans," says Norman Matloff, professor of computer science at University of California at Davis, zeroing in on the heart of the controversy, Section 419, which will increase the H-1B cap from its current 65,000 visas to 115,000 visas in 2008, and then to 180,00 per year after that.
Perhaps not surprisingly, management takes a different perspective on the proposed H-1B hikes.
"There is an inadequate number of H-1B visas provided in the bill. It raises it to 115,000; that is not enough," says Jenifer Verdery, director of workforce policy at Intel.
UC Davis' Matloff counters that the requested increase in H-1B visas assumes a shortage of workers in technology. But a BusinessWeek study found that starting salaries for new graduates in computer science and electrical engineering, adjusted for inflation, have been flat since 1999, he says.
"You don't need a degree in economics to see that the flat salaries contradict the industry's claim of a labor shortage," Matloff adds.
H-1B in flux
In addition to increasing the H-1B visa cap, Senate Bill 1348 will also allow H-1B visa holders to extend their stays in the U.S. beyond the current six-year maximum. Granted in one-year increments, the extensions will be awarded based on a merit-based point system and are subject to provisions regarding whether the visa holder has an application in under those rules for a year or more.
Another provision of Senate Bill 1348 will eliminate "experience equivalency" for H-1Bs, instead requiring as a condition of employment that the H-1B visa holder have a degree in the field for which he or she is being hired.
"You could have someone working 20 years in the right field, but they wouldn't qualify for the H-1B if they didn’t have the degree," says Greg Siskind, partner at immigration law firm Siskind Susser Bland.
Siskind also objects to the immigration bill provision that requires an employer to have no more than 50 percent of its workforce on H-1B visas, saying the bill paints with too broad a brush.
"This was meant to attack the job-shop concept, but there are some fields outside of tech where you wouldn't see it as a bad thing," Siskind says, citing professions with labor shortages such as nursing and teaching.
Intel's Verdery is also troubled by Senate Bill 1348's proposed elimination of the H-1B advanced-degree exemption clause.
"Our goal is to bring back the exemption to the H-1B visa cap those with advanced degrees, particularly those in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics," Verdery says.