Everybody Loves H-1B

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Sept. 16 2000 12:00 AM

Everybody Loves H-1B

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Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000. 

Who would have thought that the Democrats and Republicans could actually agree on a campaign issue? And on immigration to boot?

That's exactly what has happened as Al Gore and George W. Bush race to position themselves as high-tech champions of the H-1B visa debate.

At issue is the number of visas issued to highly skilled foreign workers. At present, the cap on these visas is 115,000 per year, and the visas are valid for six years. That number—both candidates vociferously agree—should be raised to 200,000.

Most of the visas go to foreign workers with specialized skills and at least a bachelor's degree. In 1999, more than half of the workers who received H-1B visas were employed in high-tech fields such as programming and electrical engineering, according to a Georgetown University study. Ten years earlier, the leading occupation for these visas was nursing.

In the past five years, meanwhile, the GOP has changed its message on immigration. Just four years ago the Republican Party was proud to talk about placing curbs on immigration. Today, Bush actively courts the very immigrant groups his party predecessors alienated, so to speak.

Increasing the visa cap is something that the high-tech industry has been lobbying for in earnest. The two leading presidential contenders even agree that the United States should improve education and technical training so that the country will not have to continue to rely on other nations to supply workers.

But even if the two candidates see eye to eye on the core issue, they have—not surprisingly—given themselves room to disagree on the way Congress and the Clinton administration are handling the visa issue.

"I would agree that Mr. Gore talks like he is in favor of the governor's position on this issue," says Ray Sullivan, a spokesman for Bush. "The problem is that on the education front and on the H-1B visa the Clinton-Gore administration has failed to lead over the past seven-and-a-half years. The governor wants to see it pass as quickly as possible."

A bipartisan bill in the House, introduced by Reps. David Dreier, R-Calif., and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., has signed on 83 co-sponsors in what may be a testament to the strengthening muscle of the technology industry.

Like House Democrats and the Clinton administration, Gore supports adding amendments to the bill that would grant amnesty to certain long-term migrants already living in the country and to Nicaraguans and Cubans fleeing human-rights violations. "I am committed to the overall fair and even-handed treatment to immigrants with substantial ties to this country," Gore said this summer in a statement.

Republicans, however, have balked at the amnesty amendments and consequently stalled the visa issue in both the House and the Senate. "There are members who would be very concerned about granting amnesty to people who have come into this country illegally, undercutting opportunity for those that have sacrificed and been patient to come here legally," explains John Lampmann, chief of staff to Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas. The popular Dreier-Lofgren bill has been held in the House Immigration Subcommittee, which Smith chairs.

Still, the pressure is on to pass the bill and alleviate a high-tech labor squeeze that is becoming a global problem. In Japan, government officials are talking of easing immigration standards for foreign IT technicians. Germany already has begun to grant more visas to high-tech professionals outside the European Union. And India, where nearly half of the people who received H1-B visas in 1999 emigrated from, is trying to stem the brain drain.

The labor squeeze is almost reaching the point of country against country, acknowledges Thom Stohler, a spokesman for the American Electronics Association. "The new economy, for lack of a better description, is being built by brainpower," he says.

Two years ago, the technology industry had to prove that there was a labor shortage when it lobbied for an increase in the H-1B visa cap. But the new economy has heated up considerably since then. "It's just been interesting watching both sides on the Hill more or less say, 'We want to help you, high-tech industry. What can we do?' " Stohler says.

The expectation is that Congress and the White House ultimately will find a way to raise the number of visas in budget legislation, as it did with an 11th-hour passage of a cap increase two years ago. But many acknowledge that raising the cap is just a Band-Aid for solving broader education and immigration problems. Another Band-Aid might be needed in coming years if the labor shortage persists. And then it will be up to the new president and Congress to go through the same exercise yet one more time.

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