New foreign workers are target of U.S. rollback

Visa program's limit will be lowered to 65,000

October 01, 2003|By T. Shawn Taylor | T. Shawn Taylor,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The number of new foreign workers allowed to enter the country will be sharply limited in the coming year, as Congress declined to renew a higher annual cap it set for a controversial visa program at the height of the technology boom.

Known as the H1-B visa, the program allows employers to hire foreign workers with special skills they can't find among American job applicants. But today, the annual limit on new H1-B visas automatically rolled back to 65,000 - a cap set in 1990.

As the economy boomed during the late 1990s, Congress raised the cap to 115,000 and eventually to 195,000 in 2000 at the request of the business community.

But with unemployment at 6.1 percent, the economy still shaky and immigration issues woefully unpopular since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, employers didn't protest as the rollback went into effect as scheduled today, the start of the federal fiscal calendar.

That inaction, however, could come back to haunt them when the recovery gains steam, some observers said.

"I think companies are going to start panicking after the first or second quarter of next year," said Mitchell Wexler, a California immigration law attorney. "Our clients are doing better and what comes hand-in-hand are more visa applications."

Eleanor Pelta, an employment law attorney in Northern Virginia who represents employers, said demand for new H1-Bs still outpaces the 65,000 cap.

As of the third quarter, 56,986 H1-B applications had been approved, according to the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Department of Homeland Security.

"The 65,000 is not going to be sufficient," Pelta said. "Congress is very reactive when it comes to immigration. By the time they look at an issue and make a decision, often the economic conditions have changed. That's what I'm concerned may happen here."

H1-B visas are renewable after three years for up to six years. Workers seeking a green card can get permission to continue working while their application is spending. The cap affects only new applicants.

Even some large firms have put new visa applications on hold. Ron Palmera, senior manager of recruiting for Convergys, a Cincinnati-based outsourcing firm, employs about 44,000 people, with an estimated 300 foreign workers in various stages of the immigration process. Some are students holding F-1 visas who hope to transfer to an H1-B; others are waiting out the green card process, which can take several years.

"The students on F-1 visas who would've been transferring to H1-Bs ... because of this rule, there are so many that won't get in this year," Palmera said.

Pro-labor groups called the rollback a victory; they had opposed expanding the program, saying employers were using foreign visas to replace American workers with cheaper foreign labor. But now they are bracing for another struggle after the economy recovers.

"On balance, it's good news for tech workers because over the next several months, there will be far fewer visas let out," said Mike Gildea, executive director of the Department for Professional Employees, a labor union affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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