WASHINGTON — For Bill Gates, it’s just another week: Host Bono over the
weekend, give an almost two-hour keynote at WinHEC on Monday and tweak
What’s politically eating at Microsoft’s chairman and chief
software architect? H1B visas.
Gates was on Capitol Hill to promote science education, research and
development funding and to participate in a Library of Congress panel
discussion with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Ver.), Rep. David Drier (R-Calif.),
Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman and Phillip Bond, under
secretary of commerce for technology.
When asked what he would do if he could make the laws, Gates quickly stated:
“I’d certainly get rid of the H1B cap.”
An H1B visa is a non-immigrant classification used by foreigners who are
sponsored and employed in specialty fields such as technology. The current
H1B ceiling is 65,000 workers per year, following caps as high 195,000 employees in the early
The huge cuts, prompted by national security concerns and protectionist
lawmakers who think the jobs should go to Americans, are a longstanding sore
point for the technology industry.
“The whole idea of the H1B thing is don’t let too many smart people come
into the country. Basically, it doesn’t make sense,” Gates said.
The lack of H1B visas is causing problems for Microsoft’s hiring, he
“You can’t imagine how tough it is to plan as a company where we say, ‘let’s
have this engineering group and staff it.’ You get a few and then you go
through these periods where nobody can come in,” Gates said.
He continued: “So, we’ll have
Canadians waiting at the border until some bureaucratic thing happens where
a few more get opened up. That’s just wounding us in this global
According to Gates, the core of the problem rests with members in Congress who
want to step back to U.S. isolationism.
“It’s very dangerous because you get this reaction: ‘Okay, the world is very
competitive, let’s cut back on trade; the world is very scary, let’s cut
back on visas,'” he said.
Leahy agreed with Gates, but Drier politely demurred.
“The post-911 effort to cut down on visas, I think that’s a bad mistake, I
think we should be increasing them,” Leahy said. “We should be opening our
borders more, not closing them. It does not improve the security of the
United States by thinking we can become Fortress America and not interact
with the rest of the world.”
Drier countered: “We can’t be so naive as to believe that there is not a
very serious border security problem with which we have to contend. We need
to ask ourselves why it is that so many of these people who are educated at
Princeton and other great institutions, why it is they leave?
He added, “It behooves us to spend time looking at our polices that create
disincentives for people to remain working right here.”
Drier told Gates the H1B visa cap could be increased if demand was there.
“If the demand is there, why have the regulation at all? It’s almost a
question of a centrally controlled economy,” Gates shot back.
Other than the H1B dust-up, the panel all agreed the U.S. needs to increase
its science and math education for grades K-12 in addition to more funding
for research and development.
“The interest in science has gone down quite a bit, some of the research
funding in terms of how its focused and in some cases even going down,
that’s a big problem there,” Gates said.
“We’re quite concerned that the
U.S. will lose its relative position [in innovation] here in something
that’s very critical to the economy,” he said.