Bill For More Foreign Workers Awaits Bush OK

April Bethea, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nov. 22

WASHINGTON—More foreign workers could soon enter the United States with temporary visas under a plan approved by Congress.

The measure allows up to 20,000 foreign workers who obtain a master’s or doctorate degree from an American college or university to work in the country for up to six years with an H-1B visa without being counted in the federal cap on such workers.

The H-1B visa measure, proposed earlier this year by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), was tucked into the omnibus spending bill approved by Congress late Saturday. The bill now moves to President Bush for his signature.

Foreign workers with advanced degrees “comprise the ‘best of the best’ among the highly skilled professionals that are critical to U.S. companies,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) in a written statement.

“This bill ensures we build our competitive strength and keep jobs here in the U.S.,” said Chambliss, who had worked to get a vote on the measure.

The law now allows 65,000 skilled foreign workers to enter the country each year with an H-1B visa to work in a “specialty occupation.” Federal officials announced on Oct. 1, the first day of fiscal 2005, that the year’s limit had already been reached.

Businesses had lobbied for exempting from the cap those foreign workers educated at U.S. institutions, saying U.S. companies need to be able to better compete with other nations.

But the proposal drew fire from many American-born workers, who feared their jobs would be at risk if the measure succeeded.

Once the omnibus bill is signed into law, more foreign workers could be hired as soon as late winter or early spring, said Sandy Boyd, a vice president with the National Association of Manufacturers and chairwoman of the coalition Compete America.

The H-1B measure also calls for increased funding for education and training programs for U.S. workers and adds an anti-fraud fee to protect against abuses of the program. Companies also are required to pay foreign workers a salary equivalent to their American counterparts and attest that no U.S. worker will be displaced in an exchange for an H-1B worker.

“All of these things were meant to both protect American workers but also give companies that are using the [H-1B] program legitimate access to the people they need,” Boyd said.

She said that with more than half of master’s or doctorate degrees from U.S. colleges in disciplines such as math, science and engineering being awarded to foreign students, companies need to be able to prevent potential hires from being lured away to work in other countries.

Boyd said that with the many fees added to the applications for H-1B visas, companies might be more inclined to hire American workers and go after foreign workers only if there truly is a need.

But opponents of the measure said the added provisions do not go far enough to protect U.S. workers.

“Congress gave unemployed American workers an early lump of Christmas coal,” said Mike Gildea, executive director for the Department for Professional Employees of the AFL-CIO.

Gildea said the H-1B exemptions, along with growing unemployment rates among technology workers, might eventually lead to fewer people wanting to join the field in the future.

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