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High tech interests scored a late victory in Congress when the lame duck legislature increased the 2005 H-1B visa ceiling by 20,000 foreign workers. The visas are limited to workers with graduate degrees from U.S. universities.
The original quota of 65,000 with undergraduate or higher degrees was reached on Oct. 1, the first day of the federal fiscal year. Tchnology special interest groups and associations pressured Congress to expand the program.
"Granting this exemption puts America first by giving U.S. employers access to this talent and giving U.S. taxpayers a bigger return on the tax dollars they invest every year in U.S. institutions of higher learning," Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), said in a statement issued shortly after Congress approved the measure last week.
The ITAA says foreign students make up 50 percent or more of U.S. graduate students in many advanced math, science and engineering programs.
"Forcing foreign students to return home after earning their advanced degrees sends that public investment packing," Miller said. "By taking this action, Congress has helped create more jobs, growth and competitive advantage for the U.S. high tech industries."
The legislation, which was attached to the $388 billion omnibus spending bill, doubles the H-1B application fee for companies from $1,000 to $2,000. For small businesses with 25 or fewer employees, the application fee is set at $1,250.
To offset criticism that firms will use the increase in H-1B workers to undercut U.S. worker salaries, the bill requires companies to pay the visa holders 100 percent of the prevailing wages for their skills. In addition, $500 of each H-1B visa fee will be dedicated to an anti-fraud fund.
The legislation also prohibits the practice of a consulting company bringing in foreign workers to replace American workers and authorizes the Department of Labor to initiate investigations of possible fraud and abuse in the H1-B program. Previously, investigations had to be initiated through the filing of a complaint by an outside party.
"We focused on opening the doors to those with the talents to contribute to our economic growth while closing the door on fraud and abuse," Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) stated during his floor remarks. "We must ensure U.S. companies have access to the individuals they require to compete in today's global economy."
Sandra Boyd, vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers Human Resources Policy, added in a statement, "Highly educated foreign nationals have a long history of contributing to America's economic success. The work these individuals do must get done somewhere. It makes sense to enable it to be done here, where it impacts thousands of downstream manufacturing, sales and service jobs."
Boyd said the expansion of the H-1B program is a short-term fix to a long-term problem.
"The U.S. needs to do more to encourage American students to pursue degrees in math, science, engineering and technology disciplines," Boyd said. "Many companies are actively engaged in programs to address this need, but it will take time."