Senate OKs bill allowing more high-tech workers into U.S.

By BART JANSEN

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The Senate passed election-year legislation today to provide nearly 600,000 new visas over the next three years for foreign workers sought by the burgeoning high-tech industry.

“There is overwhelming unanimity that we must act in this fashion if we are to keep our economy strong,” said Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich.

The 96-1 vote, while expected, followed weeks of partisan wrangling over efforts by Democrats to also allow more illegal immigrants and political refugees to remain in the United States.

“The short-term problem is how to fill the key positions immediately so that we don’t lose opportunities to foreign competitors or so that we don’t force American businesses to move offshore to where skilled workers might live,” Abraham said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Democrats “have tried to make this into a political brouhaha, which it didn’t deserve.”

But Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who supported the visa bill, expressed disappointment that it lacked measures to benefit other immigrants. “I think the majority made a terrible mistake in that regard,” he said.

Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., cast the lone vote against the bill. Sens. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif.; Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., did not vote.

The Senate bill would allow the Immigration and Naturalization Service to issue up to 195,000 six-year temporary visas annually for the next three years to skilled foreign workers. The bill also would exempt from the cap foreign graduates of U.S. master’s or doctoral programs or foreign workers at U.S. colleges.

Under present law, the government issued 115,000 H-1B visas during the fiscal year that ended Saturday. With no new legislation the ceiling would fall to 107,500 this year and to 65,000 next year.

An alternate House bill, vehemently opposed by software companies, would lift the ceiling entirely on the six-year visas but condition them to employers’ paying the immigrants at least $40,000 a year and not using them to replace Americans on their payrolls. It was approved by the House Judiciary Committee.

Technology companies contend that 300,000 jobs are going unfilled for lack of qualified workers; labor unions argue the companies want more immigrants to put downward pressure on the wages of Americans holding the same jobs.

Despite bipartisan support for letting high-tech companies – major campaign contributors to both parties this election – hire more immigrants, House Republicans have disagreed among themselves on how to do it.

The bill approved by the Judiciary Committee would require companies using the visas to increase the median pay of their U.S. workers in addition to establishing job projections for them.

“I am disappointed that the Senate would increase the number of foreign high-tech workers without including any safeguards for American workers,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chief sponsor of the Judiciary panel’s measure.

Reps. David Dreier, R-Calif., and Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., are sponsoring House legislation supported by high-tech companies and similar to the Senate bill. GOP leaders have refused to bring it out of committee for fear that Democrats would try to use it to force votes on other immigration measures and make opponents appear anti-Hispanic in an election year.

Democrats in both chambers said last week they will try to put some of the measures in one of the spending bills that Congress must pass before adjourning for the year. They include provisions to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States before 1987 and offer permanent residency to more political refugees from Central America and Haiti.

“From a public policy point of view, it worries me that computer whizzes have more value and dignity than a person who cleans toilets or is a gardener,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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