Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Visa caps should be lifted, employers say

‘We need those workers,’ computer executive says

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Numerous Maryland employers would like to see the nation’s high-tech guest worker program expanded, but Congress has not been cooperative so far this year, stalling several immigration-related bills.

The H1B visa program allows highly skilled foreign employees to work in the United States for up to six years. Through a recent change, foreign students can work here on their student visa for 29 months while their employers file for an H1B visa.

Previously, those students had only one year of work eligibility, but the backlog for H1B visas has grown to require more time, expansion advocates say. The United States has an annual H1B visa cap of 85,000, which includes 20,000 for employees with advanced degrees. In recent years, the visas have been gone by the first day they are opened to applications.

The ceiling was 195,000 as late as 2003 under a temporary increase passed by Congress in 1999.

‘‘We need those workers,” said Thomas W. Loveland, CEO of Mind Over Machines, a 50-employee Owings Mills Web applications company. He is also co-founder of the Maryland Computer Services Association. ‘‘There are all kinds of high-tech jobs in Maryland that go unfilled, and it’s going to get more challenging in Maryland with the [Pentagon’s Base Realignment and Closure] jobs coming here.”

In recent days, business and chamber of commerce executives have lobbied presidential candidates Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) to raise the limit of foreign workers who can use the program. ‘‘Artificial caps” on visas drive skilled workers to other countries and to global competitors and cause U.S. employers ‘‘to consider taking projects and work to where the workers are,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce executives said in a statement.

Opponents of the program, which include the technical trade groups Programmers Guild and American Engineering Association, recently filed a lawsuit in federal court in New Jersey to block the student extension.

‘‘It’s a fiction that the United States suffers a shortage of skilled labor,” leaders with the Programmers Guild said in a report.

Maryland employersseek change

As a higher education institution, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore — which tops Maryland’s list of H1B visa employers — is exempt from the federal cap, Hopkins spokesman Dennis O’Shea said.

‘‘We do still very much care about the issue, however, because our students are affected once they graduate,” O’Shea said. ‘‘Our graduates, because of the cap, may have trouble moving into the work force with non-JHU employers. The cap makes industry jobs hard to find. The university has been working with business community to support legislative efforts to expand the cap.”

Related university nonprofit entities and other nonprofit and governmental research organizations are also exempt from the cap. Thus, the limit also does not apply to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda or the University of Maryland, the state’s second- and third-leading H1B visa employers.

In certain fields, raising the visa limit will help employers, said Wanda L. Smith, president of Timonium temp agency Symphony Placements and president of the Maryland Staffing Association. But the visa program sometimes makes it more difficult for some highly skilled U.S. workers to find employment, she said.

‘‘They already deal with so much work that is being outsourced to other countries,” Smith said. ‘‘The visas can present another challenge.”

Companies often use the visa program to avoid hiring older technology workers, who are usually paid more, Norman Matloff, an information technology engineer and computer science professor at University of California, Davis, said in a report.

Studies have found that the H1B workers are paid 15 percent to 33 percent less than comparable U.S. tech employees, Matloff wrote in ‘‘Globalization and the American IT Worker.” The practice affects more workers than offshoring, he said.

Shortage ofseasonal workers

While the H1B program is limited by law, federal agencies are working to streamline the H2A and H2B programs to make it more accessible for employers. H2A is a visa program for temporary agricultural workers, while H2B is for seasonal nonagricultural employees, such as guest workers who come from Mexico to work in Maryland’s crab industry.

This year, employers who rely on the H2B program have had to deal with fewer visa holders than last year, as Congress did not renew a law that did not count many returning foreign workers against the limit of 66,000 visas for that program.

‘‘This is a program with a proven track record,” Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) of Baltimore said in a statement. ‘‘Congress’ failure to extend this provision is forcing small businesses to deal with devastating cuts to their work force. Companies in Maryland and around the country are unable to get the H2B visas and workers that they need and depend on.”

This report originally appeared in The Business Gazette.