WASHINGTON -- The chairman of a key congressional committee said yesterday that an increase in the number of immigration visas for high-tech workers should be contingent on the issuance of new rules to protect American workers.
Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House subcommittee on immigration, said that any increase in the number of high-tech or H-1B visas should be held up until the U.S. Department of Labor issues the regulations to implement a law passed by Congress in 1998.
"The administration, for reasons that I don't know, has been dragging its feet. There is no reason [the regulations] can't be issued quickly," Smith said.
The comments came as Smith and Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, announced the filing of a bill to temporarily increase the number of H-1B visas from 115,000 to 160,000 for the current year. Similar bills proposing an even larger increase to 195,000 visas per year already have been introduced in the Senate.
Contending there are thousands of jobs going unfilled due to a critical shortage of workers, the high-tech industry has been pushing hard to increase the number of such visas, and the president of an industry trade association said yesterday that Smith's bill was a step in the right direction.
"It's a good news, bad news story for industry," said Harris Miller, head of the Information Technology Association of America. "The good news is that Chairman Smith who has been skeptical in the past of the need for any increase in H-1B visas has now acknowledged that there is a legitimate problem and an increase is warranted. The bad news is that a lot of the specifics in the bill are unacceptable to business as they are."
Among other things, Miller said that the proposed increase in H-1B visas is not high enough to adequately deal with a shortage of high-tech workers in the United States. The information technology industry generally supports the Senate bill introduced last month that would increase the cap to 195,000 a year through 2002.
The Sun reported last week that there was widespread evidence of fraud and abuse in the H-1B visa program and that regulations to tighten control of the program had not been issued.
Smith said his bill is designed to "stop the abuses of job shops and sweat shops." Under those regulations, companies that use a high percentage of H-1B visas will be subject to increased scrutiny and will be required to show that they first tried to recruit American workers to fill any positions.
The Texas Republican said his bill also would include a provision to have the U.S. State Department, rather than the Immigration and Naturalization Service, keep tabs on the number of H-1Bs issued every year.
"We saw already that INS wasn't even able to count the number of H-1Bs they issued," said Smith, referring to a miscount last year in which some 15,000 extra H-1B visas were issued. INS officials blame the miscount on a computer error.
An INS spokeswoman said the agency would have no comment on the Smith bill.