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Congress is slow in expanding visa program for skilled workers

SHARE Congress is slow in expanding visa program for skilled workers

Despite intense lobbying from information technology companies and other business interests, Congress has not taken final steps to expand a program that provides visas for foreign computer programmers and other skilled workers.

From Microsoft's Bill Gates on down, the information technology industry backs the bill the Senate passed in May to raise the cap from 65,000 to a maximum 115,000 visas in each of the next four years.But the legislation has yet to reach the floor in the House, and industry leaders don't like the version taking shape in that chamber. It includes new protections to ensure U.S. workers aren't harmed by an inflow of foreign talent.

With high-tech executives chafing at the delay in passing legislation, House Majority Leader Dick Armey is trying to broker a compromise between the chairmen of the House and Senate immigration subcommittees.

"I'm anxious to get it done as soon as possible," Armey said last week.

Armey, who said his role is to be the "honest broker," nonetheless comes to the table favoring the Senate-passed bill, not the one crafted by House Judiciary immigration subcommittee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas.

Usually a critic of the Clinton administration's immigration policies, Smith finds himself allied with the White House on this matter. The administration has threatened to veto the bill by Senate Judiciary immigration subcommittee Chairman Spencer Abraham, R-Mich.

The debate centers on a basic question: Whether the booming high-tech sector really is facing a shortage of qualified workers.

Industry officials contend there is a shortage and say the sector's growth may be slowed or directed overseas if they cannot find the necessary talent, whether American or foreign. Organized labor, meanwhile, argues that industry is exaggerating the problem and recruits foreigners to hold down salaries.

Smith has said some of the major companies pushing for expansion of the visa program, including Texas Instruments and Intel Corp., have announced layoffs in recent months. The companies say the layoffs aren't in the same job categories as the computer programmers, engineers and others they want to bring in under the H-1B visa program.

Smith appears to be insistent on keeping the U.S. worker protection provisions in his bill.

"The Republican Party is on the side of the working men and women of America," Smith said. "American workers should not be fired and replaced by overseas workers; they should be recruited and hired before foreign workers, and I look forward to working with the House leadership to meet those goals."

Supporters of Abraham's bill believe Smith goes into the meeting at a disadvantage.

"The momentum from the Senate passing Abraham's bill and the leadership pledging its desire to advance this issue in the House clearly gives supporters of increasing legal immigration a leg up," said Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

Jasinowski pronounced Smith's worker protection provisions "complex and unworkable."

Smith's bill would require employers to attest that they didn't lay off an American and hire a foreign worker under the visa program instead. And it would require companies to attempt to recruit qualified Americans before hiring foreigners.