US high-tech companies lobbying Congress for immigration changes

Wed, 2006-12-27 12:53 PM
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Advanced technology industrial interests in the United States are lobbying members of Congress to change immigration policies toward highly skilled immigrants.

Some recent studies are being used to support the case that U.S. high-tech industries are suffering as they compete against other countries in the technology boom these past several years. These interests assert that restrictions on the number of H-1B workers available each year is hurting U.S. companies.

High-tech companies are touting these studies to show contributions made by educated immigrants, and they want updated immigration laws to expand the number of immigrants allowed into the country each year.

Present U.S. immigration law restricts H-1B visas to 60,000 available per year, down from 195,000 per year in 2004 and 215,000 prior to that. An additional 6,000 are available, but are reserved by special treaties with specific countries. 20,000 more H1-B's are exempted each year outside the 60,000 cap for advanced degrees, such as PhD's.

In an immigration reform bill passed by the U.S. Senate in May, it was proposed that the cap be raised to 115,000. Due to political disagreements that were not resolved, the U.S. House and the Senate did not pursue negotiations on their different immigration reform bills to craft a law for 2006.

Just last week, the 110th U.S. Congress, now under a thin majority control of the liberal-leaning Democratic Party, has begun bi-partisan negotiation to create new bills. The Senate version is currently estimated to be ready for a vote in April or May of 2007, followed later in the year by a House version. Addressing changes in the H-1B program is one of many expected items in these bills.

Industry studies, such as a study by the National Venture Capital Association, conclude that immigrants were involved in almost 20% of venture-capital, public companies in the last 15 years. These are companies that started high-technology businesses and employed thousands of American workers. These companies raised over $500 billion dollars in capital since 1990.

About 40% of public high-tech companies, with Intel, Google, Yahoo, E-Bay, and Sun Microsystems included on that list, had at least one foreign-born person as a least one of the founders. In the computer and software field, foreign-born entrepreneurs are behind almost half of venture capital start up companies. The bottom line is that a very significant portion of the innovation that has kept the U.S. in the forefront of technology comes from immigrants.

For decades, "Silicon Valley" industries in California attracted the best engineers and computer programmers from around the world. Companies now say that they cannot find enough U.S.-born engineers and computer experts to fill job openings.


U.S. Senate immigration bill that proposed to increase the quotas would have helped the backlog of jobs that companies claim are going unfilled.

Some proposed solutions would to lift the caps on certain types of high-tech jobs and also allow qualified foreign students (approximately 600,000) to remain in the U.S. and fill high-tech jobs after they graduate from school. Scotland in the United Kingdom has a similar program for graduates of its universities. It is seen as so successful that the UK government is currently crafting a program for all of Britain.

Canada is another country that is considering similar measures for graduates of its universities. A number of other countries have recognized the potential of this approach during 2006, such as Australia, New Zealand and several other European Union nations.

For the H-1B program in the United States, it might be possible to keep the current quota in place if such measures are enacted. The possibility would be to allow a number of exemption categories targeted at specific needs such as the industries are interested in. Tens of thousands of potential highly skilled workers might then be eligible for work visas, potentially exceeding the proposed quota increases from earlier this year.

Meanwhile, industry players, such as Microsoft's CEO Bill Gates, continue to maintain that many more H-1B visas for skilled workers are needed this coming year. The 110th session of Congress will address this problem and, hopefully, get past the partisan rhetoric that deadlocked last year's debate.

The incoming Speaker of the U.S. House, Nancy Pelosi, has already spoken with Bill Gates about the need for reform. Both have stated that Congress needs to encourage innovation.


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