WASHINGTON -- The yearly number of foreign visas for IT workers and professionals coming into the U.S. will drop by two-thirds for 2004 unless the U.S. Congress acts, and an immigration lawyer group came to Congress Tuesday asking that the cap on H-1B visas not be allowed to slide back to pre-dot-com boom levels.
Representatives of Intel Corp. and Ingersoll-Rand Corp. also argued that H-1B visas are needed to fill technical positions where they can't find qualified U.S. candidates, but one panelist told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that the visa program is taking money from the pockets of U.S. workers.
"The unemployment rate of electrical and electronic engineers has reached an all-time high," said John Steadman, president-elect of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA. "This translates to hundreds of thousands of unemployed U.S. engineers. These are people who are degreed and capable U.S. engineers." Unemployment among electrical and electronic engineers reached 7 percent in early 2003, Steadman said.
The annual H-1B cap went from 65,000 in the U.S. government's fiscal year 1998 to 115,000 visas granted a year in 1999 and 2000, then up to 195,000 in 2001 and 2002. The capped H-1B numbers don't include some workers, such as those employed at universities and some research organizations, but the caps do affect how many IT workers U.S. companies can bring into the country. The American Electronics Association noted, however, that the IT industry's reliance on H-1B visas was falling, from 65 percent of the capped number in 2001 to 34 percent in 2002.
The number of H-1B visas, used by companies to bring IT workers from India, China and other countries to the U.S., would go back to a pre-1999 cap of 65,000 if Congress fails to act by Oct. 1. Stephen Yale-Loehr, the business immigration chairman of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, asked the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to allow 115,000 H-1B visas for the U.S. government's 2004 fiscal year. The H-1B visa program, popular with technology companies, also allows other U.S. businesses to recruit hard-to-find professionals such as accountants, lawyers and doctors.
Backers of the H-1B program argued Tuesday that the visas aren't taking away U.S. jobs, because some technology companies still can't find qualified workers for some positions. Ingersoll-Rand has searched for more than a year to fill a plastics engineer and an industrial robotics engineer position, finally settling on a Canadian resident in both cases, said Elizabeth Dickson, advisor of immigration services for the industrial equipment manufacturer.
"It is hard to displace U.S. workers when you don't have any U.S. workers to choose from," Dickson said.
Intel attempts to find U.S. workers before bringing in a foreign worker with an H-1B visa, said Patrick Duffy, human resources attorney for Intel, but more than half of the graduate students in physical science programs at U.S. universities are from outside the country. About 5 percent of Intel's U.S. workforce are H-1B workers, Duffy said, and many of them eventually become permanent U.S. citizens.
"This small percentage is comprised of individuals possessing unique and difficult-to-find skills which can only be acquired through advanced, university-level education," Duffy added.