WASHINGTON -- Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates told lawmakers yesterday that the United States should welcome an "infinite" number of high-skilled foreign workers to fill engineering, computer programming and other jobs that otherwise would go vacant.
Employers face a "critical shortage" of high-tech workers, Gates said. "There is only one way to solve that crisis today: Open our doors to highly talented scientists and engineers who want to live, work and pay taxes here."
Gates told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that Congress should fix the "terrible shortfall" in H-1B visas, which allow well-educated foreigners to work in the United States for several years.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who invited Gates' advice on improving U.S. competitiveness, agreed that "the U.S. cannot sit back and watch other countries attract the best talent." Kennedy is working with Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Republican, on an immigration reform package that might include more H-1B visas.
The government issues 65,000 H-1B visas each year. The visas are quickly snapped up, typically by tech workers from China and India. The cap had been as high as 195,000 in the past, but was allowed to recede in the aftermath of the 2001 recession.
Gates said even a return to the previous high level of visas would be inadequate because of the growing demand for workers with backgrounds in math, science and engineering. "The country should welcome as many as possible," he said.
Many U.S. engineers and immigration opponents hope to thwart creation of more visas, saying companies use foreign workers to drive down domestic wages.
Kim Berry, a computer programmer in Sacramento, Calif., and president of the Programmers Guild, said his group opposes creation of more visas because they already "are pushing Americans out of the market."
Employers are so eager to get access to lower-wage workers that "they don't first consider qualified Americans," Berry said.
More young Americans would be drawn to such work if the pay were better, he said. "That's the way supply and demand are supposed to work," he said. "You boost the salary" and more U.S. students would study engineering and programming.
Berry said House members are more likely to try to block the Senate from raising the H-1B visa cap. "Members of the House are more down to Earth," compared with the Senate, where many members are millionaires and may not know average workers, he said.
Gates faced no harsh challenges from the committee. Even Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, said that in his state, which struggles with high unemployment, business owners have told him "they just could not find the engineers or computer scientists they needed to run their business."
Kennedy did, however, ask Gates whether allowing more health professionals into the United States might cause a "brain drain" in poorer countries.
Gates said that keeping such professionals out of the United States is no solution, because "they just go to other countries" with high living standards.
Gates also called for improvements in high school education, and the doubling of college graduates in math and science by 2015. He urged lawmakers to significantly boost spending on basic scientific research.