Under the 1990 law that created the program, a limit of 65,000 a year was set on the number of H-1B visas that could be issued. But lobbyists from Silicon Valley soon warned that 65,000 a year was not enough, due in part to the need to debug computers of problems associated with the year 2000.
Under U.S. immigration law, workers with H-1B visas can stay in the United States for up to six years. After that, they can apply for permanent resident status but cannot remain in the H-1B program unless they leave the United States for at least a year. Under the law, foreign workers are to be paid salaries comparable to those of American workers in the same jobs.
INS officials say many of those temporary workers become permanent U.S. citizens under other immigration programs.
As a result of the lobbying effort, the immigration law was amended in 1998 to raise the annual cap on H-1B visas to 115,000. It will remain at 115,000 in 2000, then drop to 107,500 in 2001 and to 65,000 in 2002.
The industry groups and the companies employing H-1B workers have a powerful ally in the American Immigration Lawyers Association. AILA members have thrown their financial muscle and support behind the congressmen who play a key role in determining the fate of the program.
Sen. Spencer Abraham, chairman of the Senate Immigration Committee, has been a speaker at AILA's national conferences and held a series of fund-raisers in tandem with AILA events.
When AILA met last summer in Seattle, the Michigan Republican held a $500-a-plate breakfast at the hotel where most of the conventioneers were staying. He held a similar fund-raiser during an earlier AILA conference.
Campaign finance reports show AILA members donated $11,450 to Abraham in 1998, the year his committee voted to double the H-1B program. Abraham's campaign committee also reaped donations from executives of Mastech and Syntel, two of the biggest H-1B companies. His committee reported contributions of more than $17,000 from executives of Microsoft Corp., a major user and supporter of the H-1B program.
Serving on Abraham's staff is Stuart B. Anderson, a former official at the Cato Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, who while there wrote a controversial study frequently cited by supporters of the H-1B program as justification of the need for foreign high-tech workers.
Abraham's role in boosting the H-1B program earned him the Cyber Champion Award last year from the Business Software Alliance, a group representing some of the nation's largest software firms. The annual award is given to a member of Congress "for tireless efforts" on issues critical to the high-tech industry.
Records at the Securities and Exchange Commission show how big the program has become.
With revenue of nearly $400 million per year, Mastech Systems Corp., based in Oakdale, Pa., has reported that about 35 percent of its work force comes from the H-1B program. INS records show Mastech near the top of the annual list of companies taking part in the program.
Mastech's customers include some of the country's largest corporations, including GE Capital, which announced in August that it was buying a $30 million stake in Mastech and that it would buy $122 million in services from the firm over the next three years. Mastech once had a contract to do work on the White House computer system.
GE Capital also has used H-1Bs from Tata Consultancy. Tata now has 29 such workers assigned to GE units.
'It was my dream'
"USA or your money back," reads one ad in a Bombay paper. "State of the art facility," reads another. Others guarantee top salaries, medical insurance and challenging assignments.
Recruiters for the body shops "promise you everything under the sun," said a 27-year-old computer programmer who answered an ad in a Bombay newspaper three years ago.
When he spotted the advertisement promising a challenging assignment and a top salary, he saw the chance he had been waiting for -- a chance for the American dream.
"I was learning things in India but there was no way I could use them. There's too much talent there. For me there was no possibility of growth. I was earning $250 a month," he said. "In India, that's real good money."
After a 10-minute interview at a Bombay hotel, he was told that he had the job with an American high-technology consulting firm.
By going to work for the New Jersey firm, he could get a job in the United States and, just as important, the visa to make it legal. Eventually, he hoped, he could become an American citizen.
"I always wanted to come here," he said. "I don't know why, but it was my dream."
The programmer, who asked that neither his name nor his company be given for fear of being sued, soon discovered that the reality was far different from the promises.