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News Update
24-11-04, 02:13
Congress approves new H-1B visa programme
By Edward Alden in Washington


US high-technology companies will be able to hire up to 20,000 of the top foreign graduates from US universities each year as a result of a provision attached to the omnibus spending bill, but they will pay a high price in new fees and restrictions intended to prevent fraud in the visa programme.

The measure, part of the $388bn (£208bn) bill passed by Congress at the weekend, was approved in spite of criticism that unemployment among US technology workers is too high to loosen restrictions on foreign hiring. As a result, US companies that lobbied heavily for the provision, including technology giants such as Microsoft and Oracle, were forced to accept several new measures aimed at limiting the impact on US workers.

“The cost factor is enormous,” says Theodore Ruthizer, a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers' Association. “It's as if Congress is saying we're going to discourage companies from using the programme by making them pay through the nose.”

The provision will allow up to 20,000 foreign students who hold advanced degrees from US universities to be hired each year by US companies. This number comes on top of the current annual quota of 65,000 for the so-called H-1B visas for foreign workers, and will be available this year.

The H-1B visa programme is so popular that the entire quota for this fiscal year, which began October 1, was exhausted in a single day.

Sandra Boyd, who chairs Compete America, a coalition of US companies lobbying for more H-1B visas, said the measure was critical for ensuring that US companies could hire the best science and technology graduates from US universities. More than half of the US graduate students in these fields are from abroad. “There's a frenzied competition for this same group of people worldwide,” she said.

With Congress expected next year to consider broader immigration reform, “it establishes the principle that we need to be sure that American companies have access to graduates from American universities”.

The bill also includes a range of measures aimed at ensuring that companies are not hiring cheaper foreign workers to replace similarly qualified US workers.

It will strengthen the Labor Department's funding and authority to investigate companies for fraud, and will require companies to pay these workers 100 per cent of the prevailing US wage, up from the current 95 per cent. It creates some new restrictions on L-1 visas, which have been used particularly by Indian software companies such as Wipro and Infosys to transfer Indian workers temporarily to their US facilities.

Filing fees will also go up, from $1,185 in most cases currently to over $3,000. Ron Hira, who chairs the career and workforce policy committee for IEEE-USA, which represents US technology workers, said that while the new measures were significant, they were unlikely to curb H-1B abuses.