WASHINGTON—A Senate committee Thursday approved a nearly 50 percent increase in special visas coveted by Silicon Valley companies to hire highly skilled foreign workers and boosted application fees to help ease the federal budget deficit.
Under a proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the annual number of H-1B visas would increase from 65,000 to 95,000. The increase was approved by the Judiciary Committee after it rejected a proposal by Specter for an increase of twice the size, to 125,000 a year.
High-tech executives have been pushing for more of the controversial H-1B visas, which critics say displace American workers in favor of less expensive foreigners beholden to the company that sponsors them.
The fate of the proposed increase is uncertain. The measure, which also would raise the fee employers pay for each six-year visa by $500, was added to a broad budget bill intended to save $300 million over the next five years.
The legislation still must be approved by the full Senate and reconciled with a version in the House of Representatives that does not make any changes to the H-1B visa program.
The House has proposed increasing fees by $1,500 for L-1B visas, which companies use to transfer foreign employees already working for them abroad to the United States. Feinstein’s proposal also included an L-1B visa increase, but only of $750. The current fee for L-1B visas is $685; it is $2,185 for H-1B visas, with an optional $1,000 expedited processing fee that most companies pay because of the high demand.
Under intense pressure from Silicon Valley during the Internet boom, Congress temporarily boosted the annual number of visas in 1998 and again in 2000 to address high-tech worker shortages. The annual number of visas peaked at 195,000 from 2001 to 2003 before dropping to 65,000 in 2004.