A year after winning a bruising battle in Congress to expand a controversial visa category, the high-tech industry is again clamoring for more foreign computer programmers.

Last week, the H-1B visa program reached its annual allotment of 115,000 foreign workers in "specialty occupations," the Immigration and Naturalization Service announced. It was the third year in a row that the available visas ran out before the end of the fiscal year.

As a result, the INS will not accept petitions received after June 15 for first-time H-1B employment, and thousands of other workers whose petitions have been pending since April will have to wait until Oct. 1 -- the start of fiscal 2000 -- before they can start their jobs. The visas are used mostly to bring in computer programmers, the majority from India and China, but they also are issued to physical therapists, engineers, doctors and fashion models.

Congress raised the annual cap for H-1B visas from 65,000 last year, after an intensive lobbying campaign by high-tech employers. The industry argued that computer workers were in critically short supply and that it needed to bring in foreigners to sustain growth. Information technology employees and labor groups countered that companies sought foreign programmers mainly to hold down wages in a tight labor market. They said many employers have abused the visas, which tie workers to petitioning companies in a form of high-tech indentured servitude.

In a compromise, Congress limited the increase in H-1B visas to a three-year period. Under the deal, the cap stays at 115,000 in 2000, then drops to 107,500 in 2001 and reverts to 65,000 thereafter.

But already, high-tech employers and their advocates say the expansion of the program was insufficient and warn that the industry faces serious roadblocks unless it gets more foreign workers. Under the H-1B program, workers are admitted for "temporary" employment lasting up to six years. Many end up staying when employers sponsor them for permanent immigrant status.

In a recent speech at the Dallas headquarters of Texas Instruments Inc., Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) called for increasing the H-1B cap permanently to 200,000 a year. He said he plans to introduce a bill to ensure that high-tech companies "can find and hire the rare people whose specialized skills are critical to America's success."

Randy Johnson, a vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the bill would be welcome news for companies such as Texas Instruments that have "hundreds of skilled job openings and not enough qualified applicants."

But congressional sources said there is little enthusiasm on Capitol Hill for another pitched battle this year over the H-1B program, which has sharply divided Republicans. Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee and a leading proponent of more restrictive immigration policies, argued last week that the H-1B program was plagued by growing fraud and that America should concentrate on producing "more well-educated workers."

In a letter to INS Commissioner Doris M. Meissner, Smith said testimony before his subcommittee showed "pervasive fraud in the H-1B program has had a major impact on the availability of the numerically limited visas." He cited an inquiry into H-1B visa applications at the U.S. consulate in Chennai, India. According to the INS and the State Department, in 3,247 cases examined by an anti-fraud unit, investigators were unable to verify the authenticity of nearly 45 percent of the petitioners' claims of education and work experience and found an additional 21 percent to be fraudulent.

In addition to workers with needed skills, "thousands of marginally qualified applicants are also entering the United States" under the H-1B program and another temporary employment category, said Jill M. Esposito of the State Department's Directorate of Visa Services.

The H-1B cap issue also poses a dilemma for Democrats, who have looked to Silicon Valley as a source of political contributions, notably for Vice President Gore. While Gore maintains close ties to the high-tech industry, he has tried to avoid alienating organized labor, which has sharply criticized the H-1B program.

Asked whether Gore supports raising the H-1B cap, spokesman Alejandro Cabrera said only that the vice president "thinks our focus should be on training American workers for American jobs."

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