Business coalition steps up campaign for more high-skilled work visas

Compete America, a coalition of businesses seeking more high-skilled work visas, Thursday will begin distributing mock H-1B lottery cards to Capitol Hill offices to call attention to the Homeland Security Department's system for meting them out. The scratch cards offer two options: "Sorry, you lose. Pack your bags and take your unique skills overseas" and, "You win an H-1B visa, but you'll have to wait 5 to 10 years for a green card."

Homeland Security will begin accepting H-1B applications for fiscal 2009 April 1, and industry analysts expect the demand on that day to far exceed the 65,000 slots available. Department officials instituted a lottery system to handle the influx of applications. "Just how random a lottery is this? It is a lottery that gives no weight to the industries that participate, whether they are high-tech or high fashion," said Oracle Vice President of Government and Public Affairs Robert Hoffman, who also is the co-chairman of Compete America. "It is a lottery that does not allow companies to use the limited visas they are awarded for their preferred applicants."

Compete America is focusing its lobbying on House members who are negotiating a stop-gap immigration package that would address a number of immigration-related issues, including H-1B shortages, a lack of low-skilled H-2B visas, and the current undocumented population.

Several members have introduced legislation that only addresses the high-skill visa shortage, but key lawmakers have said other immigration-related provisions, including boosted enforcement measures, must be included.

"If short-term relief passes, the message we're being given is, 'It's all or nothing,'" Hoffman said. Even a limited immigration package would face considerable hurdles this year. For example, Compete America has suggested legislation that would "recapture" about 300,000 unused H-1B visas from past years as well as more than 200,000 employment-based green cards that were not processed within the years they were allotted.

But that idea has met with some resistance from organized labor. "We don't simply want to do a visa recapture. ...We want to take a look at some of the lapses in enforcement and oversight," said AFL-CIO legislative representative Sonia Ramirez. "We don't want to simply solve the problem in these industries by offering green cards to their foreign-born employees. We just want to reform the base program."

AFL-CIO also opposes any increase in H-1B visas, arguing that the unemployment rate among U.S. technicians has not fallen.

Lawmakers who support an increase in H-1B visas will have to contend with sponsors of other enforcement-related bills. For example, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Finance ranking member Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, likely will want to attach their H-1B enforcement bill to any measure that makes more visas available.

The Grassley-Durbin measure, which is supported by the AFL-CIO, is designed to eliminate employers' ability to "outsource" H-1B workers and limit the percentage of H-1B workers that an employer can hire. Compete America has concerns with the Grassley-Durbin bill, saying its limits on H-1B visas are too stringent.

But businesses say they will only go so far in accepting new enforcement in exchange for a temporary increase in available visas.

"You're not going to give us 10,000 new visas in exchange for tons of new regulations and expectations," said U.S. Chamber of Commerce Director of Immigration Policy Angelo Amador.

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