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U.S. Mulls High-Tech Workers’ Visas

April 29, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Heeding computer industry appeals, the chairman of the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee proposed a temporary increase in the annual visa quota for high-skilled foreign professionals Wednesday.

But industry reaction was tepid to Rep. Lamar Smith’s legislation, which his panel will consider Thursday.

The Texas Republican’s measure is more narrow than a version already approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. And, unlike the Senate bill, it includes a provision demanded by the Clinton administration that would require employers to attest that they are not displacing American workers with foreign talent. The companies must also certify they’ve made a ``good faith″ effort to find Americans for the jobs.

Critics find these provisions too onerous.

They are ``problematic,″ said Texas Instruments Vice President John Boidock, adding, ``We hope to work with the chairman and the committee to seek their removal.″

Smith’s bill would raise the annual cap on visas for skilled foreign professionals _ currently 65,000 _ to 95,000 this year, 105,000 next year and 115,000 in 2000. The cap then would revert to 65,000.

The Senate version, drafted by Senate immigration subcommittee chairman Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., would raise the ceiling to a maximum 115,000 visas for each of the next five years. Abraham’s measure, due on the Senate floor in mid-May, is backed by Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and Netscape CEO James Barksdale.

Last year, demand for the professional workers’ visas that let foreigners remain here for up to six years outpaced availability for the first time. This year, the limit is expected to be reached by May, four months before the end of the fiscal year.

``Failing to act quickly to increase the number of H-1B visas could adversely impact many American high-tech industries,″ Smith said. ``Because the success of our economy is indebted to advances in computer technology, we cannot ignore the demand for additional information technology workers.″

Fearful that employers could turn to foreign workers to hold down labor costs, the administration has signaled it will oppose any H-1B increases absent additional protections for American workers.

Responding to that concern, Smith included the attestation provisions not included in Abraham’s bill as well as language letting the Labor Department, in certain instances, initiate investigations of employers suspected of abusing the program. Currently, Labor can investigate only if a complaint has been filed by an outsider.

Those protections don’t go far enough, said Jack Golodner, president of the AFL-CIO’s Department of Professional Employees, which opposes both bills. ``There’s very little enforcement mechanism in it,″ he said of Smith’s measure.

Replied Smith spokesman Allen Kay: ``Labor is pushing this beyond the realm of believability.″ Smith’s bill contains ``significantly stronger worker protections than does the Senate bill, and that should not be lightly overlooked,″ Kay said.

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