Visas for Skilled Workers Still Frozen

By S. Mitra Kalita
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2006

For technology companies and research institutions that have spent recent autumns lobbying for permission to hire more foreign workers, this was supposed to be the year that ended the annual rite of desperation.

A bill that passed the Senate this spring would have doubled the number of visas issued every year for highly skilled professionals, such as scientists and engineers. And it would have helped clear a backlog of applications for permanent residency from such workers.

But the attempt by Congress to rewrite the nation's immigration laws has bogged down in controversy over border security and illegal immigration. That means changes in the skilled-worker programs, while less controversial, are also in limbo.

With Congress due to recess tomorrow, advocates of the programs have given up on winning immediate change. Now they're hoping members of Congress will focus on the issue in the lame-duck session late this year.

"It is incredibly difficult to pass major legislative reforms in any areas, and they tried to bite off a lot," said Jenifer Verdery, a policy director for Intel Corp., which has lobbied for more skilled foreign workers. "We've made a strong case, and we're hoping to take that to the finish line . . . if there is any policymaking left to do after the election."

For years, many of the country's largest technology companies and most prestigious research laboratories have said they are unable to find enough U.S.-born scientists and similar workers to fill their openings. They have depended on the H-1B visa to bring overseas talent into the United States. The companies also sponsor such skilled workers for green cards, which allow them to live and work here permanently.

But only 65,000 H-1B visas are issued each year, and demand has been so high recently that all of them are taken instantaneously -- mostly with tech workers from India and China. People from those countries also face among the longest waits for green cards.

The Senate plan would have nearly doubled the H-1B quota to 115,000 a year, and it would have helped clear a backlog of green-card applications.

The technology industry mounted a huge push on the issue this year. Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates met with members of Congress. A group of computer programmers hired a lobbying firm. An industry coalition handed out fake green cards imprinted with their demands.

A few professional associations and anti-immigrant groups oppose expanding the skilled-worker programs, contending that they can depress wages, but the programs have historically drawn support from both political parties.

At Microsoft, H-1B and green card reform has emerged as the "top legislative priority right now," said Jack Krumholtz, the company's managing director for federal government affairs. "We are really at a crisis in terms of the industry's ability to hire the best and the brightest and retain them."

A company spokeswoman estimated that about 7 percent of Microsoft's hires over the past five years had H-1B visas. Of the company's H-1B employees, 20 percent a year obtain green cards. The company said the low number stems from delays in processing green cards. An estimated 500,000 green-card applications are pending nationwide.

The employees describe agonizing, life-altering waits. In some cases, marriages, home purchases and retirement investments are put off. Graduates of master's and doctorate programs describe stringing together fellowships and one-year appointments to stay in this country. A spokesman for the National Institutes of Health said those on temporary work visas have trouble qualifying for federal research grants.

Immigrant scientists call the policies crippling and said they had expected relief from a provision in the Senate bill that would have allowed favorable treatment for graduates in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

"In the midst of this whole debate, very little is said about legal immigration. And even within legal immigration, little about PhDs and scientists," said Jai Pathak, a research scientist who lives in Washington. "There are a lot of very fine scientists the government would like to keep, but their citizenship status impedes it."

Pathak cited the Hungarian roots of Intel Corp. co-founder Andrew S. Grove, whose work helped create the modern computer industry that employs millions of Americans.

"What would have happened if the United States had decided to close the doors on him?" Pathak said.

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