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U.S. Considers Visa Grants for Skilled Workers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Congressional leaders announced a compromise Friday that would bring about 200,000 additional foreign engineers and other high-skilled workers into the country on temporary visas over the next five years.

The agreement is in response to months of intense lobbying by Silicon Valley executives facing a shortage of high-tech workers. The proposal addresses concerns about foreigners replacing American workers by requiring heavy users of the program, known as H1-B, to swear they have tried to recruit domestically and not had recent layoffs.

However, the proposal allows most companies to apply for visas without making such promises.

“It’s livable for the business community . . . , a good middle ground,” said Jenny Eisen of Santa Clara-based Intel Corp. “The compromise is going to be a very good bill for employers and a good bill for workers.”

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Coming on the heels of a surprise Senate vote Thursday to overhaul the guest worker program and bring thousands more foreigners to work on American farms, the compromise reflects the Republican-controlled Congress’ business-oriented attitude on immigration.

Rather than view immigration in terms of offering the American dream to needy people worldwide, these two measures turn the question on its head, focusing instead on the needs of the U.S. economy and recruiting foreigners to plug gaps in the work force. And while many believe such programs eventually lead to permanent residency, they are technically short-term--10 months of the year for the farm workers, six years for the engineers.

The guest worker program is a favorite of agribusiness, while the visas for the highly skilled are popular with information technology firms, both key contributors to lawmakers.

At Shiny Entertainment, a Laguna Beach computer programming and video design firm, half of the 37 employees are from northern Europe, England or Ireland. The firm advertises worldwide on the Internet and in computer and video design magazines.

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Scott Herrington, public relations director, said the company would benefit from the agreement.

“You never know when that kid, who has been working away in his garage for the past four years, will come out with new ideas and designs,” he said. “Once we find a talented person who works well on a team, we go to great lengths to get the person here.”

Experts estimate that there are 340,000 unfilled high-tech jobs, with American universities churning out only a quarter of the computer-science graduates the industry is demanding. California’s 814,000 technology jobs account for 18% of the state’s employment base.

“It’s very shortsighted,” Dan Stein of the Federation for Immigration Reform, a restrictionist group in Washington, complained of Friday’s compromise. “Republicans say they want to control illegal immigration and then they open the floodgates to cheap foreign labor. The big loser is the American worker.”

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Friday’s announcement came after a standoff between two of Congress’ key leaders on immigration: Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) and Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Texas). Abraham shepherded a bill through the Senate in mid-May that was popular with the high-tech industry, but Smith stymied a similar measure, instead gaining approval in the Judiciary Committee for a bill that would have forced companies to make several declarations about their recruitment efforts and layoff patterns before obtaining visas.

The compromise, which House and Senate leaders said they would vote on before the August recess, would require declarations only from firms at which more than 15% of people on the payroll are foreign nationals. Of the top 25 users of the H1-B program, six fit in that category, Smith said. The proposed legislation would fine any company found to have laid off Americans before hiring foreigners and would create arbitration panels to handle disputes. The size of the fines has not been determined.

“This agreement is good for business, good for workers, good for America,” Smith said in a news release. “It targets likely abusers of the system with stiff penalties.”

The compromise would let firms in Silicon Valley and elsewhere import 20,000 more workers over the next two months, breaking the logjam that began May 7 when the current annual cap of 65,000 visas was filled. That cap would be increased to 95,000 in 1999, 105,000 in 2000 and 115,000 for each of the following two years.

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President Clinton had threatened to veto any increase in the number of visas unless “meaningful reform” to the program guaranteed protections for American workers. The White House also mandated “a significant training component” in a veto warning last week, but lawmakers have yet to decide whether that will come in the form of a fee for each visa or some other mechanism.

White House spokesman Barry Toiv said Friday the compromise “made some progress” but that administration officials were awaiting more specifics before deciding whether the president would sign the bill.

“We need both a short-term and a long-term solution,” Abraham said. “The short-term is a temporary increase in the H1-B program. The long-term solution isn’t going to be through immigration. We need training programs.”

California lawmakers involved in this issue, including Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) and James E. Rogan (R-Glendale) could not be reached for comment Friday.

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Established eight years ago, H1-B visas are increasingly being used by high-tech companies, though other skilled workers, like those in health care, are also included. Of the top 100 companies using H1-Bs to import workers this year, 18 are in California; they recruited a total of 1,039 employees. Overall, 44% of the 50,000 H1-B visas granted from October 1997 to March 1998 were for people from India.

“What it means is we can get the workers we need to create more jobs,” T.J. Rodgers, president and chief executive of Cypress Semiconductor in San Jose, said of the congressional plan. “Every engineer I can hire creates five jobs. This will create jobs in America; that is the bottom line.


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