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Visa Issues Vex Tech Workers, Their Employers

By Ellen McCarthy
Thursday, October 14, 2004; Page E01

Dawn M. Lurie knows how to wake up her audiences when she briefs personnel managers on immigration law: She points out that in some cases, executives could face criminal penalties for hiring immigrants without the right visas.

"That's usually a shocker for people," said Lurie, an immigration lawyer at Greenberg Traurig LLP's McLean office. Lurie's seminars touch on such topics as making sure window washers are legal workers and the compliance requirements for subcontractors.

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But when she met last week with a small group of human resource professionals from tech companies and government contractors, one of the topics of most concern was the shortage of special visas, known as H-1Bs, for highly skilled workers.

These visas allow companies to hire foreign professionals with training in fields that have too few qualified U.S. workers. The category has been used to recruit physicists, financial analysts and creative designers, but it's known primarily for bringing foreign engineers and information technology workers to the United States.

During the dot-com boom, when skilled tech workers were in hot demand, Congress increased the cap on how many H-1B visas could be issued. From 65,000 a year in the early 1990s, the cap was expanded to 115,000 a year in 1999 and 2000 and expanded again to 195,000 a year for 2001-03.

But after the tech bubble popped, the industry started purging workers, and the cap was allowed to revert to its original level. The result as the tech economy has begun to recover: The visa limit for 2004 was reached by February, and a backlog of requests started building at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office. On Oct. 1, the first day that visas for 2005 could be approved, all 65,000 for next year were issued.

Now, no H1-B visas are available for companies that want to sponsor foreign professionals, Lurie told those attending the seminar, held in Tysons Corner. "So that's a problem."

Tech industry associations and companies lobbying to relax the restrictions argue that they need access to highly skilled professionals who remain in short supply in the U.S. workforce.

"You might have a man or woman who calls themselves a tech worker, but if their skills are 10 or 15 years out of date, that's not much help for the company," said Jeff Lande, senior vice president of the Arlington-based Information Technology Association of America. "If we don't do this, not only do we hurt U.S. competitiveness, but we also ultimately hurt U.S. workers because companies are less competitive globally."

That argument doesn't fly with experienced tech professionals who are still out of work. They say they are already under enough international pressure from the growth in offshore outsourcing of U.S. jobs. IEEE-USA, an engineering association based in the District, is encouraging members to lobby Congress to keep the current caps in place. "We continue to be concerned about unemployment," said Vin O'Neil, IEEE-USA's legislative representative. And until there are significant job gains, he added, it's "difficult for us to support an increase in the cap . . . because it increases the competition for available jobs."

Proponents of expanding the H-1B program contend that doing so is necessary to combat a brain drain from the United States. In many cases, they say, foreign students graduate from U.S. universities, then are forced to return home because they can't get H-1B visas for jobs in this country. Their U.S. education becomes a boon to tech industries abroad. A bill introduced by Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.) would allow an extra 20,000 visas to be awarded to graduates of U.S. higher education programs.

Administrators of information technology departments at local colleges say there's another visa problem that won't be solved by more H-1Bs for their international graduates: Bureaucratic hurdles in getting student visas have increased dramatically since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, deterring some foreign students from enrolling.

George L. Donahue, professor of systems engineering and operations research at George Mason University, said one of his most talented PhD candidates is a student from Vietnam who returned home last Christmas to visit her mother for the first time in four years. When she went to the U.S. embassy to get her visa renewed, she was told her background had to be investigated more fully before she could return to the United States. The student was stuck in Vietnam for three months, missing much of the semester while paying rent on an empty apartment.

Stories like this get around quickly, Donahue said. The number of foreign students in graduate programs at GMU's School of Information Technology and Engineering dropped from 598 in the fall of 2002 to 503 in the fall of 2003. Last year, about half of the computer science graduate students at the University of Maryland were from other countries, said Samir Khuller, chair of the program. This year only a third of the 33 students are non-U.S. citizens, and many of them report that their peers are choosing programs in Europe and Australia to avoid visa headaches, Khuller said.

"We've always told people to send us their best and their brightest, but we've just sent a very different signal. It's going to have a big effect 20 years from now," said Donahue of GMU.

He argues that the restrictions on foreign tech students and workers will hurt the U.S. tech sector. "The industry will go where the talent is -- it'll all go offshore and we're just going to be buyers."

Ellen McCarthy writes about the local tech scene every other Thursday. Her e-mail address is mccarthye@washpost.com.


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