But U.S. IT professionals say nearly doubling the number of foreign workers allowed to come here would flood the market with cheaper labor and kick start another wave of high-tech unemployment.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has endorsed a move to up the number of H-1B visas given out every year from 65,000 to 115,000. The bill also says that in coming years if industry meets the cap limit, it automatically can be expanded by an additional 20 percent.
The bill is expected to receive official Senate approval as it comes as part of the giant immigration bill that Republicans and Democrats have been wrestling over. Slipped in amid heated negotiations over border security, immigration and citizenship, is the call to up the number of foreign workers -- largely scientists, programmers and engineers -- employed by American companies and universities.
On Thursday, both sides reported being close to sealing a deal on the immigration bill, but by Friday morning bickering had stalled efforts. Now reports say it may not be signed until Congress returns from a two- week spring recess. While the giant bill staggers ahead, the move to expand the H-1B visa program just might hit a major snag in the House of Representatives.
Last week, a House panel that oversees immigration issues did not respond nearly as favorably to the move. And industry watchers say there the push may stall, at least temporarily.
And that would be a loss to U.S. industry which needs to fill positions that stand empty and could better innovate if they were allowed to bring in highly skilled workers from other countries, according to Rebecca Peters, counsel and manager of government relations for the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on International Personnel, a non-profit trade organization that lobbies for immigration laws and trade policies on behalf of American employers.
''This will not hurt U.S. tech workers,'' says Peters. ''These [visa workers] are innovators. They're coming in and making America more competitive globally.'' Peters also says demand for high-tech professionals is high and H-1B workers would take jobs that otherwise wouldn't be filled at all.
John Miano, a consultant for Colosseum Builders Inc., a high-tech and legal consultancy based in Summit, N.J., says that's not the case.
Miano authored a report for the Center for Immigration Studies comparing wages paid to H-1B computer programmers to U.S. wages. He contends that U.S. companies want to up the cap, not to bring in innovative and highly trained workers, but to harvest cheap labor from foreign shores, putting American workers at a disadvantage and forcing many into unemployment lines.
''It's creating direct competition for American workers,'' says Miano, who testified before a House subcommittee on this issue last week. ''The cap is the only protection for U.S. workers that exists in the system. The cap is the only thing that stands between workers and total chaos.''
Innovation or Competition?
Six to eight years ago, during the golden age of the IT industry, there were more high-tech jobs than skilled American workers could possibly fill. Using the H-1B visa system, companies were bringing in hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, and were just beginning to ship a few jobs offshore -- a trickle of employment. But few squawked. After all, there were more than enough jobs to go around.
But that all changed when the dot-com bubble burst, starting a major slide in the tech industry near the turn of the century. Suddenly once highly paid engineers, system administrators and project leaders found themselves receiving pink slips instead of big budgets. IT departments shrank while the number of resumes coming in for a single tech job grew.
At that point, an increasing number of people raised their voices against the H-1B visa program, which, they said, were taking needed jobs away from U.S. citizens struggling to find work. The cap was lowered but despite that, there were 4 million H-1B and L-1 visas issued in the last six years alone, according to John Bauman, president and co-founder of The Organization for the Rights of American Workers (TORAW).
L-1s are non-immigrant visas available to foreign employees of international companies that have offices in the U.S. The L-1 visas allow them to relocate to U.S. offices.
Now that the economy has improved and high-tech hiring has picked up again, employers say it's time to allow companies to hire more foreign workers through H-1B visas.
Peters says it's not just a matter of filling vacant spots. She says it's a matter of helping the U.S. economy by using H-1B visa workers to create new jobs. She explains that if Intel, for instance, hires innovative foreign workers who create a new technology that takes off, new jobs will be created to support that new product.
Bauman, himself a project manager who has worked only 10 months in the last three and a half years, says it's not that simple of an equation. There are U.S. high-tech professionals who could use some of those jobs today.
''We've lost 25 percent of our IT jobs just here in Connecticut,'' says Bauman, who was in Washington, D.C. last week meeting with Congressional representatives. ''Nationally, I think they're reporting that 4 percent of high-tech workers are unemployed... The shame of it is that many of those who have lost their jobs just don't show up on the stats anymore. The government can say, 'Look how great we're doing' but these people are driving trucks, working as handymen. They're not working in their field anymore. They're just trying to make ends meet and pay the bills. But suddenly they don't show up [on unemployment lists] anymore.''
Ralph Wyndrum, president of the IEEE-USA, a non-profit organization that describes itself as promoting the advancement of technology, says many out-of-work IT professionals have themselves to blame -- not foreign workers.
''To American computer engineers, we say, 'You can compete','' says Wyndrum. ''The only ones who might be hurt are the computer engineers who haven't done anything about their careers for 10 or 20 years... They were once well-trained but they're not up-to-date. I'd dare say the probability of the engineers who were laid off whose training is obsolete is a one-to-one equivalence.
''We've gotten a little lazy,'' he adds. ''The technology is changing so rapidly you can't expect that the degree you got in 1985 can match up now. Just think how many things have been created... The free market is in control.''
But Wyndrum says the IEEE doesn't support the H-1B visa program -- cap or no cap.
''We support legislation that says let people in. Welcome people as America always has,'' he adds. ''Let them be citizens... We have always succeeded as a country because we have attracted the brightest and the best. It's kept us at the top of the totem pole. To change that now and to say, 'China, India, we don't want you' isn't going to work. We can't overcome natural forces. You have to learn to how thrive within these forces.''