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U.S.: Doors May Open For High-Tech Foreign Workers

Washington, 3 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S. senator says he will soon propose legislation that will raise the annual number of skilled foreign workers admitted into America to help offset an acute labor shortage in the high-tech industry.

Senator Spencer Abraham (R-Michigan) made the comment last week at a hearing of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss the current labor shortage in America's high tech industry. Many members of congress say they are worried about the adverse impact such a labor shortage may have on the U.S. economy.

Currently, U.S. law permits only 65,000 skilled workers per year into the U.S. under a special visa called the H-1B. The program permits foreign citizens to work in the U.S. for up to six years. It has been used primarily for workers in computer-related fields, although scholars, doctors and scientists have also been among those granted the special status.

Abraham says it is time for legislators to raise the current limit on H-1B visas to help U.S. high-tech employers cope with their personnel shortages.

In fact, the shortage has become so severe, says Abraham, that for the first time since the visa was created in 1990, U.S. employers used all 65,000 slots last year. He adds that employers already estimate they will exceed the limit by May of this year.

Some experts warn that if the limit is not raised, it could severely hurt the high-tech industry. That in turn, say experts, would have a detrimental affect on the U.S. economy.

For example, a recent study by a private organization called Network Wizards shows that the technology industry led U.S. exports in 1996 and was the largest manufacturing employer in America. In 1996 the U.S. also employed 4.3 million high-tech workers and paid them an average salary of 49,600 annually -- 73 percent higher than the average private-sector wage.

The shortage is already adversely affecting many of America's high-tech companies. According to a recent study done by the Information Technology Association of America, the U.S. currently has 350,000 job vacancies for computer scientists and programmers that are not being filled and that number is rising.

Abraham did not say how many workers he wanted to be eligible under the H-1B program, but White House officials are reportedly urging the Senate to double the limit.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) says she would support a higher limit, but only if U.S. high-tech industries would contribute more money to public education so America would not have to "rely on foreign nationals" in the future.

But big high-tech U.S. computer firms, such as Microsoft and Texas Instruments, are urging the Senate to remove the cap altogether and let them hire as many skilled workers as they need.

Removing the limit completely, however, has raised the ire of officials of the U.S. Labor Department who say that bringing in an unlimited number of foreign workers could discourage American workers from acquiring new skills.

Labor Department officials also say the H-1B program is flawed because it permits employers to lay off American workers in order to bring in foreigners, and does not require firms to first look for qualified U.S. workers before hiring laborers from abroad.

But Abraham says that delaying or refusing to increase the limit on H-1B visas would be a bad idea for the U.S. economy.

Says Abraham: "Companies across America are faced with severe high-skill labor shortages that threaten their competitiveness in this new Information Age economy."

Abraham adds that the only way America will be able to keep its edge in the global high-tech industry is to let employers have all the workers they need. And in order to do that, he says, U.S. legislators need to raise the limit on the H-1B visas as quickly and as efficiently as possible.