Debate over H-1B visas divides employers, workers

Two months ago, when the U.S. government began accepting petitions from employers seeking visas for high-skilled foreign workers, it took only a week to reach the nation's cap of 65,000 visas.

That triggered a lottery, a selection process favoring large U.S. companies that each year submit hundreds, even thousands, of petitions for the coveted H-1B visas.

Under the current language of the immigration bill being debated in the U.S. Senate, the annual cap would be raised to 115,000 new visas — and as high as 180,000 under certain conditions.

Tech industry lobbyists argue the increase is necessary because of a shortage of high-tech workers inside the United States.

But the proposed increase has angered many U.S. tech workers and their advocates, who contend the "tech shortage" is a ruse. They say the practice of hiring young H-1B employees is driven by an attempt to maximize profits.

H-1B employees snag between one third and half of all new tech jobs in the country, according to a recent study of the country's high-skilled guest worker program.

Only half of all U.S. computer, information science and engineering graduates are hired into their field each year, according to the study co-authored by Hal Salzman, professor of public policy at Rutgers University.

Among the computer science grads who didn't get hired, nearly a third said no IT jobs were available. Almost half said they chose to seek jobs in other fields after finding that pay and working conditions in the IT sector were lower than they had expected.

Salzman's study found that wages for tech workers has remained flat over the past 15 years, at about where they were in 1998, even as guest workers make up an increasing share of the IT labor market.

"Immigration policies that facilitate large flows of guest workers will supply labor at wages that are too low to induce significant increases in the supply from the domestic workforce," the study said.

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