WASHINGTON — High-tech companies could bring in almost 600,000 additional skilled foreign workers over the next three years and also hire thousands more foreign students from U.S. graduate programs under a bill that sped through Congress on Tuesday.
The Senate passed the bill on a 96-1 vote, and the House followed with voice vote passage several hours later, abandoning a version of its own that met serious opposition from the technology industry.
The quick congressional action after nine months of jockeying fulfills an election-year promise by both Democratic and Republican leaders to a high-tech sector that is increasingly flexing its political muscle through lobbying and campaign donations to both parties. President Clinton has said he will sign it.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said, "It’s the best bill that’s been considered yet."
Lofgren had co-sponsored a similar bill with Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., which had stalled in the House in favor of a version that had more protections for American high-tech workers.
With U.S. unemployment rates holding steady near a 30-year low, companies in the Northwest, California’s Silicon Valley and along other booming high-tech corridors say they need the additional workers with six-year H-1B visas to fuel their continuing rapid growth.
"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," said Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich.
A bill by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and approved by the House Judiciary Committee would have required companies using visas to increase the median pay of their U.S. workers and establish job projections for them. The industry opposed Smith’s bill.
Computer software firms and other high-tech companies contend that 300,000 jobs are going unfilled for a lack of qualified workers. Labor unions, however, argue that the companies want more immigrants to keep down wages of Americans holding the same jobs.
While lifting the ceiling entirely on the H-1B visas, Smith’s bill requires employers to pay the immigrants at least $40,000 a year and not use them to replace Americans on their payrolls. Companies would also have to document that they have at least $250,000 in capital to participate in the program.
Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., cast the lone vote against the bill. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., did not vote.
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