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Special Visas Hit Limit; Increase to Be Debated

Immigration: Rule allows 65,000 high-tech workers to enter country. Senate is poised to consider legislation to raise that number by 30,000.


WASHINGTON — Federal officials announced Friday that they would accept no more applications until October for temporary visas for high-skilled workers, as Congress prepares to discuss next week whether to boost the number of such immigrants allowed into the country each year.

As expected, the Immigration and Naturalization Service said that the 65,000 visas for specialized jobs--known as H1-Bs--would be used up by month's end and set a Monday deadline for applications for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Also on Monday, the Senate plans to debate legislation that would add 30,000 slots, lifting the cap to 95,000 for the current fiscal year and the next five. That bill has wide backing from the Silicon Valley--where companies import thousands of engineers and other high-tech professionals for jobs that they say are increasingly hard to fill with qualified Americans. But in the House, Republicans have offered competing legislation that would increase the number of visas while imposing new restrictions on employers trying to recruit foreign workers.

Meanwhile, congressional Democrats and President Clinton's administration are trying to tie education and training programs for American students and workers to the legislation to curtail the need for the high-skilled immigrants.

"Training is a vital component of our strategy to address the long-term demand for highly skilled U.S. workers and to enhance the international competitiveness of important U.S. industries," White House aides wrote in a recent letter to the House Judiciary immigration and claims subcommittee.

For the last several months, high-tech industry executives have conducted an intense lobbying effort to lift the annual cap of 65,000 H1-Bs, a visa category that permits companies--which can prove they need certain skills Americans cannot provide--to bring workers here for six years. In addition to high-tech professionals, many health care workers come to the United States under the H1-B category.

Last fiscal year was the first time since the program was enacted that the H1-B cap was reached. As of this week, the INS had approved 62,336 H1-B visa applications.

"Finding an adequate supply of qualified workers is the No. 1 issue for American companies today," American Business for Legal Immigration, a Washington lobbying group, said in a press release Friday. "Employers must have the ability to hire skilled foreign workers to help fill the skills shortage gap."

Few in Congress disagree that the number of visas must be increased; the question is mainly how and by how much.

The Senate Judiciary Committee last month approved a bill by Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) that would create a new immigration category for health care professionals and provide 85,000 H1-Bs, mainly for the computer industry, through fiscal 2003. It prohibits use of the visas to replace American workers, punishing willful violators with a $25,000 fine and a two-year ban from participation in all employment-based immigration programs. It also provides for 20,000 college scholarships for science and math.

Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Texas), who heads the House subcommittee on immigration, has introduced a separate bill that would last only three years but boosts the cap to 115,000 by 2000. Smith's bill would require proof that companies have recruited U.S. workers and would allow the Department of Labor to initiate investigations of employers for misusing the program, rather than relying on complaints.

Several House members said that they plan to introduce amendments that would require employers to sponsor training programs, add protections for whistle-blowers who report abuse and conduct new studies of the high-tech labor market to better assess the need for foreign workers.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is expected to try to limit the Senate bill to a three-year period rather than five.

"Sen. Feinstein continues to support a temporary increase in the visa quota," her spokesman said Friday. "But she wants to insure that this increase remains just that--temporary."

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