For first time, quota for skilled worker visas not met; Silicon Valley continues push to raise limit
Just about every year, Silicon Valley appeals to Washington for immigration reform. High-tech firms say they need to increase the number of visas for highly skilled workers to bring much needed engineering and business talent. They also ask for reforms to the nation’s green card program to keep the talent that is already here.
This year is no different, except that this year for the first time high-tech and other firms did not use the allotted 65,000 H-1B visas set aside for non-immigrant skilled workers. In fiscal year 2009 ending Sept. 30, 2009, 46,000 H-1B petitions had been filed, leaving about approximately 19,000 H-1B visas unused at the beginning of FY 2010.
Even so, two weeks ago, the CEOs of Microsoft, Intel, Cisco and dozens of other high-tech firms again appealed to the White House for those reforms in a letter on improving the jobs picture. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), said last summer he plans to introduce a bill to reform the H-1B visa program and green card policies.
“For the United States to remain a world leader in innovation, we need to increase America’s domestic pipeline of highly skilled workers, while also attracting and retaining the world’s best and brightest workers,” the 87 executives wrote in their letter. “We should do everything possible to retain highly educated foreign professionals already in this country whose companies want them to stay, and those individuals seeking advanced degrees at our college and universities.”
High tech firms say the dip in H-1B applications is due to the downturn in the economy, which has swept the employment ranks at Silicon Valley and other tech firms.
“This year’s numbers tell a story,” said Jenifer Verdery, director of workforce policy at Intel in a September release. “Contrary to the claims of H-1B critics, if importing cheap foreign labor were the goal of H-1B visa employers, these visas would have been gone on the first day applications were accepted last spring. That hasn’t happened. In slow economic times, such as today, the demand decreases and the market takes over – which is as it should be.”
Proponents of reforms say the dip in H-1B applications supports calls for a demand-based system. And they say such flexibility is needed to ensure companies will be able to hire more from abroad -- beyond 65,000 slots --- when the economy strengthens and they begin to expand their ranks. Some have called for students earning advanced degrees in science and technology to be excluded from the annual quota for green cards, so as not to limit their chances of gaining permanent residency.
“So no, we didn’t hit it this year, but everyone following tech sees a significant rebound and therefore 65,000 cap will be hit early again, maybe this year or following year,” said Ralph Hellman, vice president of trade organization, the Information Technology Industry Council.
During the dot-com boom, immigration was among the only issues in Washington that captured the interest of Silicon Valley. Companies like Microsoft and Sun Microsystems were complaining that U.S. schools weren't pumping out enough engineering and other talent to meet their demand. Quotas for workers from India and China filled quickly and in 1999, Congress increased the quota for H-1B workers to 190,000 a year for five years. The quota went back to 65,000 in 2004, and tech executives have called for the cap to be raised again.
In a report released earlier this month, the Center for American Progress outlined recommendations for immigration reform. The study, which cites 13 foreign-born U.S. citizens who have won the Nobel Prize in the last decade, urges a more flexible H-1B visa program and expanding green cards for skilled and educated workers.
December 14, 2009; 8:30 AM ET
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