Sunday, February 17, 2013

Congress to Increase H-1B Caps?

A bill, called the Immigration Innovation Act or I2, (I-Squared) has been introduced in Congress in an effort to expand the number of foreign workers who can obtain temporary visas to work for U.S. companies.  The bill would expand the number of H-1B visas available each year on a sliding scale, depending on the demand by U.S. empoyers for such workers.

The H-1B visa is open to workers to be employed in specialty occupations.  A specialty occupation is defined as an occupation that requires a bachelor's degree, or its equivalent, or higher as the normal entry requirement for the position.

Each year, there are 65,000 temporary visas available for specialty workers.  Another 20,000 visas are set aside specifically for workers who hold a U.S. master's degree.  The temporary visas can eventually lead to permanent residency.  They are often used for U.S. companies seeking to fill high-tech positions, although any job which requires a bachelor's degree may be able to qualify for the basis of an H-1B visa.

U.S. employers may apply for the H-1B visas up to six months before the visas are to take effect.  The visas become available at the beginning of the fiscal year, or October 1.  This means that an employer may submit an application as early as April 1.  In times of an expanding economy, it is not uncommon for the cap of all 85,000 visas to to be met on the first day of filing.

If passed, I2 would raise the number of H-1B visas available each year from 65,000 to 115,000. More H-1B visas could be made available, depending on the demand.  If the cap is met within the first 45 days of when petitions can be filed, another 20,000 wold be made available.  If the cap is met within the first 60 days, then another 15,000 would be made available.  If the cap is met within the first 90 days, then another 10,000 visas would be made available.  If the cap is met again by the 275th day on which petitions can be filed, another 5,000 visas would be made available.  Under the proposed legislation, the cap on foreign workers holding U.S. master's degrees would be eliminated.

This bill has received bi-partisan support, as it is co-sponsored by such Republicans as Orrin Hatch and Marco Rubio, and such Democrats as Bill Nelson and Mark Warner.

However, passage of the bill is not assured.  Senators Dick Durbin and Charles Grassley, for example, have been critical of the H-1B program, arguing that it permits U.S. employers to bypass hiring available U.S. workers.  U.S. technology companies, by contrast, have been pushing for the expansion of available H-1B visas.

The President has promised to press for comprehensive immigration reform this year.  The Obama Administration's strategy has been to push through a single bill addressing various immigration issues.  By contrast, the Republicans, many of whom believe it critical to press for reform in the aftermath of the 2012 election defeat, wish to press forward with many bills, each addressing a discrete immigration issue.  The goal for Republicans appears to be to avoid a show-down within the party over anything perceived by the far-right to be amnesty.  Whether this bill passes, or is absorbed by a larger, more comprehensive bill, remains to be seen.

By:  William J. Kovatch, Jr.
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