As Washington embarks on a tumultuous debate over immigration reform, one of the more popular visas is likely to avoid the red-hot rhetoric that typically singes foreign worker programs.
Each year the Department of Homeland Security issues thousands of H-1B visas to educated and skilled foreigners deemed crucial by U.S. companies, who report an inability to fill jobs with U.S. citizens. Workers in high-tech fields, health care and teaching account for many of the 65,000 visas allotted nationally each year.
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators, with the tacit approval of President Barack Obama, is proposing to boost the annual visa quota to 115,000. The cap could rise to 300,000 to satisfy a roaring economy.
Critics, though, say companies abuse the visa program, hiring lower-paid immigrants when willing Americans need work. Older workers, engineers and computer programmers in particular, are bypassed in favor of younger, cheaper foreigners, they say.
The push for visa expansion, though, seems unrelenting, backed heavily by technology companies, immigration attorneys, job-placement agencies, and rural schools and hospitals.
“If used correctly, the H program would be great to expand,” said Duncan Cross, the marketing director for Renmatix, a Kennesaw, Ga., biotech company that employs eight or nine H-1B workers. “An entrepreneur – indicative of an H profile – is somebody comfortable leaving home and coming to America to chase his dream. He’s often a big risk-taker. Young tech firms, in particular, can benefit from more folks with those qualifications.”
Last week’s well-publicized push to overhaul the nation’s immigration policy, putting 11 million illegal immigrants on a potential path to citizenship, garnered most of the attention and controversy. Overshadowed, yet substantial, was the introduction a day later of legislation by U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; and others to nearly double the number of H-1B visas granted annually.
Obama, in a speech last week in Nevada, signaled his support for the legislation by linking talented foreigners to jobs in “fields of the future, like engineering and computer science.”
In addition to raising the H-1B quota, the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013 would entirely remove the visa cap for foreign graduates with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The 65,000 visas currently offered typically get snapped up within days or weeks of the de-facto filing date of April 1, leaving many U.S. businesses unable to get workers with visas. Last year, for example, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security received 350,000 applications. Visa holders overwhelmingly come from India and China.
Charles Kuck, an Atlanta immigration attorney, doesn’t expect the country to ever reach the 300,000-visa limit. If the economy again slows, the legislation requires an automatic reduction in visas, ostensibly to safeguard U.S. workers.
The legislation “will make sure that the right number of employers get the right number of employees when they need them,” Kuck said. “They shouldn’t have to wait a year to get somebody onboard, which is typically what happens. There is a huge, pent-up demand out there.”
Renmatix, with offices in Georgia and Pennsylvania, began hiring research scientists and process engineers from India, Russia, China and Brazil in 2008. Cross acknowledged that U.S. workers are qualified to do the work, but Renmatix couldn’t find technical experts willing to relocate or join a young company.
H-1B “allows us to fill gaps that we would otherwise struggle to staff,” Cross said.
“Any bottleneck would really interrupt our progress,” he said. “The H program has been a source of talent that allows us to move more quickly than we would otherwise.”