Workforce.com

Congress Unlikely to Lift Immigration Caps in December

November 29, 2006
An effort to increase the number of visas for highly skilled immigrants is likely to fail during the lame-duck session of Congress, although the issue is sure to be revisited next year—perhaps as part of comprehensive immigration reform.

Democratic and Republican aides say legislation to raise H-1B visa caps probably won’t be attached to an appropriations bill in December, since most government funding measures have been pushed to next year.

In addition, a desire by some House Republicans to link H-1B caps to a mandatory employer verification system may force the issue into a broader immigration measure.

Advocates say the cap must be raised immediately from 65,000 to at least 115,000. The current limit was hit before October 1. No more slots are available until next October.

"American companies cannot afford to wait to retain the workers they need and to attract more workers," says Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the American Council on International Personnel.

At Ingersoll-Rand, an industrial and construction equipment maker, the challenge is to find candidates with specialty technology degrees like design engineering.

"They’re very critical employees," says Elizabeth Dickson, manager of immigration services at Ingersoll-Rand. "Your candidate pool is largely foreign nationals."

When one of the company’s business units wants to make an international hire, Dickson often delivers bad news.

"I have to tell them there are no H-1Bs until October," she says. "That’s hard for them to comprehend."

Ingersoll-Rand is part of Compete America, a coalition of more than 200 companies and organizations that is lobbying to raise H-1B caps.

Others in Washington, however, are concerned that foreign workers are forced to accept low wages and U.S. applicants are denied job opportunities because of H-1B visas.

"Reforms need to be on the table before any discussion of lifting the caps comes up," says Ron Hira, vice president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA. "There are fatal flaws in the program."

Congressional action on immigration of highly skilled workers may come next year in a bill sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Rep. John Shadegg, R-Arizona. The measure would raise the H-1B cap to 115,000 and the green card limit from 140,000 to 290,000.

Elements of the bill may be included in a broader measure, as they were in this year’s comprehensive Senate immigration bill.

Conservative House Republicans refused to negotiate the differences between an enforcement-only House bill and its Senate counterpart this year. The fate of immigration in a Democratic-controlled Congress is hard to predict.

Some incoming Democrats are so-called economic populists who might be inclined to focus on how H-1Bs could hurt U.S. workers. But party veterans might support raising the caps.

"There’s not a clearly articulated Democratic Party position," Hira says.

Ingersoll-Rand has a firm stance.

"Most of our competitors are in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. They can hire [foreign nationals]," Dickson says. "If you want to remain competitive, you want to hire the best and brightest."

--Mark Schoeff Jr.