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New H-1B visa cap increase sparks debate

  November 16, 1998 9:00 AM ET

The new American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act, enacted by Congress in October, is supposed to offer better protection for both U.S. and foreign IT workers. The feature of the new law that garners the most attention and controversy is a temporary increase in the number of foreign IT professionals allowed H-1B visa status in the United States.

The new version of the law increases the cap from 65,000 to 115,000 in 1999 and 2000. The increase in H-1B visas was necessary, supporters of the law argued, because of an IT skills shortage that has plagued U.S. employers. Organizations such as the Information Technology Association of America said their research shows there are about 350,000 vacant IT positions in the United States. Particularly hard to find, said the ITAA, are computer scientists, systems analysts and computer engineers.

The opposition, however, led by groups such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers-USA, points toward increasing levels of unemployment in the engineering community and past abuse of the H-1B laws that resulted in U.S. workers getting laid off only to be replaced by foreigners who may work for less money.

The original law that created H-1B visas, known as the Immigration Act of 1990, applies to employers seeking to hire nonimmigrant aliens as workers in specialty occupations--from high tech to fashion modeling. The new law includes more stringent requirements that target IT workers, including the following:

  • Restrictions on the displacement of U.S. workers, particularly by employers that depend on H-1B visas for 15 percent or more of their work force.
  • Penalties of up to $35,000 per violation on employers found abusing the program.
  • Whistle-blower protection.
  • A $500 fee per visa for scholarships to go to low-income math, engineering and computer science students, as well as to provide job training for U.S. workers.