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H-1B visas debate rears its ugly head

Congress is poised to double H-1B foreign-worker visas again. Even the man dead set against it concedes it will probably happen.

The nearly perennial H-1B visa fight is open again in Congress, pitching labor against business in a debate over doubling the number of foreign tech workers allowed into the country.

Not that this hasn't happened before. The bills, if passed, would restore H-1B numbers that were in effect until 2003. One bill, introduced March 14 in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, would retroactively boost H-1B visas from 65,000 to 195,000 for fiscal years 2008 and 2009.

Another, introduced March 13 by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., is dubbed the Innovation Employment Act and would hike H-1Bs to 130,000 starting this year and 180,000 from 2010 to 2015, provided all H-1B spots are actually filled. Both bills have been referred to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.

Giffords' bill includes caveats intended to fight fraud and prevent H-1B jobs from being outsourced to other countries.

The new bills resurrect debate over the number of H-1B visas awarded, which has been an issue since they were created in 1990. The U.S. allowed 195,000 H-1B workers per year in the early part of this decade, but Congress allowed that number to lapse back to 65,000 in 2003.

Tech industry leaders say there is a shortage of highly skilled workers, meaning the U.S. must import labor to stay high on the innovation curve. Opponents say H-1B is just a sneaky way for companies to buy cheap programmers.

But the single strongest opponent of H-1B expects this fight to be a losing one.

"They might go through," said Norman Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California, Davis and a longtime critic of H-1B visas.

"If I were to bet on it … at least one will be enacted," Matloff said.

Lest the recent push for H-1B increases be considered a minor one, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates showed up in Washington just before the bills were submitted to ask the House Committee on Science and Technology to raise the H-1B limit.

His testimony set off the dormant H-1B visa fight and brought criticism from the Programmer's Guild, an organization representing IT workers in the U.S.

Gates said the current H-1B limit "is arbitrarily set and bears no relation to the U.S. economy's demand for skilled professionals," according to his written testimony submitted to Congress. He also said failure to raise the H-1B cap is forcing Microsoft and other U.S. companies to outsource staff to other countries.

In this area, I would defer to Bill Gates.

C.J. Karamargin, communications director, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

"We live in an economy that depends on the ability of innovative companies to attract and retain the very best talent, regardless of nationality or citizenship," Gates said. "Unfortunately, the U.S. immigration system makes attracting and retaining high-skilled immigrants exceptionally challenging."

The thing is, opponents of H-1B visas say, Microsoft and other companies aren't paying "high-skilled" worker wages. H-1B rules do require that workers are paid the prevailing wage for their job.

Matloff said H-1B workers in the IT industry are "almost always programming of some sorts."

"It could be a programmer, it could be a software engineer, it could be a system analyst," Matloff said.

But Matloff and other H-1B critics contend there is no shortage of American workers for those jobs. H-1B workers, they say, just come cheaper and younger.

A 2003 U.S. Government Accountability Office report found that H-1B workers were generally younger than their counterparts in the U.S. workforce. But the report's wage analysis was inconclusive, showing younger H-1B programmers generally made more than U.S. programmers of the same age, but older U.S. programmers generally made more than H-1B workers of the same age.

It is the age bit that Matloff said puts CIOs in a philosophical argument with themselves: By the numbers, they appreciate paying less for labor, Matloff said. But in shared experience, the CIO is sensitive to issues of age discrimination.

"In talking to them I find out that a lot of them had trouble getting work themselves," Matloff said. "They're forced, by circumstances, to hire the H-1Bs."

C.J. Karamargin, communications director for Giffords, said the southern Arizona representative submitted her bill to help support the growing technology industry in and around Tucson.

"The high-tech sector of the economy in Southern Arizona is growing, fast growing," Karamargin said, "These are good jobs and that is transforming the face of Arizona and it is helping to drive the Arizona economy.

"When you look at this industry -- aerospace, biotech, e-learning, environmental technologies, nanotechnologies, optics, something that's very important to Tucson … these industries need the talent that is made available through the H-1B program," he said.

Karamargin said the timing of Gates' comments before the committee with the bill introduction was coincidental but showed there is an IT labor need.

"Here's a guy who knows high tech and he said that there's a critical shortfall of skilled scientists and engineers in the United States," he said. "In this area, I would defer to Bill Gates."

The Giffords bill does include some caveats imposed in the raising of the H-1B limits. Companies will not be allowed to advertise jobs as available only to or giving preference to H-1B applicants. It also increases financial penalties for H-1B fraud and provides whistleblower protection for H-1B workers.

Matloff said those clauses are all fine and well but ultimately distract from the "real issue" of cheaper foreign labor being used to fill IT jobs that would otherwise go to college-educated Americans.

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