Senate passes high-tech visa bill

The Associated Press
Wednesday October 04, 2000

WASHINGTON — High-tech companies could bring in nearly 600,000 new skilled foreign workers over the next three years and also hire thousands more foreign students from U.S. graduate schools under a bill the Senate passed Tuesday. 

The 96-1 vote reflected broad election-year support for the technology industry that is increasingly flexing its political muscle through lobbying and campaign donations to both parties. 

With U.S. unemployment rates holding steady near a 30-year low, companies in Silicon Valley and along other burgeoning high-tech corridors say they need the additional workers with six-year H-1B visas to fuel their continuing rapid growth. 

“The short-term problem is how to fill the key positions immediately so that we don’t lose opportunities to foreign competitors or so that we don’t force American businesses to move offshore to where skilled workers might live,” said Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich. 

Despite the overwhelming Senate vote, obstacles remain in the House, where Republican leaders have differed over measures aimed at assuring that the skilled immigrants don’t displace American workers. 

A bill from Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, that was approved by the Judiciary Committee would require companies using visas to increase the median pay of their U.S. workers in addition to establishing job projections for them. The industry opposes Smith’s bill. 

The House Rules Committee chairman, Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., who cosponsored another visa bill, called the Senate version “dynamite” and said House leaders would find a way to get it passed. 

Industry advocates – including Microsoft and Sun Microsystems, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers – praised the Senate vote and called for the House to follow suit. 

Computer software and other high-tech companies contend that 300,000 jobs are going unfilled for a lack of qualified workers. Labor unions, however, argue that that the companies want more immigrants to put keep down wages of Americans holding the same jobs. 

Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., cast the lone vote against the bill. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., did not vote. 

Under present law, the government issued 115,000 H-1B visas during the fiscal year that ended Saturday. With no new legislation the ceiling would fall to 107,500 this year and to 65,000 next year. 

Democrats in both chambers said last week they will try to put other immigration measures, which had slowed consideration of the visa bill, on one of the spending bills that Congress must pass before adjourning for the year, under threat of a presidential veto. 

The measures include granting amnesty to illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States before 1987 and offering permanent residency to more political refugees from Central America and Haiti. ——— 

The bills are S.2045, H.R. 3183 and H.R. 4227. 

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