WASHINGTON, Oct. 6 (UPI) -- Without swift intervention by Congress, the number of foreign professionals working in the United States will fall drastically next year. The question, however, is whether that reduction in skilled foreign labor is good or bad for the U.S. economy in the long run.
On Tuesday, the government reached its quota for H-1B visas for next year in a single day, as all 65,000 applications were filled. That was the quickest allocation of the visas since the program was first launched 14 years ago, and critics have argued that the cap set by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service is simply too low.
Moreover, they argue that by only allowing such a small number of qualified foreign professionals to work in the United States, the U.S. economy will suffer as it loses its competitive edge.
"Congressional limits on H-1B visas are set without regard to the economic or competitive needs of our country," said Randel Johnson, vice president for labor and immigration at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The chamber, which represents some of the country's biggest corporations, is also the biggest business federation in the world, and it argued that the limitation will hurt businesses.
"America's ability to remain the world leader in innovation depends on its ability to attract foreign nationals graduating from advanced degree programs from U.S. universities," Johnson said, adding that "the ability to obtain visas for highly educated foreign nationals is crucial to U.S. competitiveness and helps keep jobs in America."
The visas are often given to engineers, computer programmers, and other skilled workers, many of whom have been educated in U.S. universities, often for an advanced degree. Demand for such workers reached a frenzy during the dot-com boom, when the number of trained information technology-related professionals simply could not keep up with soaring demand. That led the technology industry to lobby hard to boost the number of available visas, which was increased to 115,000 in 1999 as well as 2000. That number was then raised to 195,000 for 2001 until 2003. The number, however, has been decreased to 65,000 for this fiscal year and next.
The reasons for the cutback in visas numbers are both political and economic. On the one hand, the United States has been cutting back on the number of visas it issues in general, for tourists and students as well as professionals following the terrorist attacks of September 2001. But more importantly, the cutback in H-1B visas comes at a time when lawmakers are particularly sensitive to the loss of jobs at home in an election year.
In the near-term, the biggest losers will be the potential visa recipients themselves, who will be unable to work in the United States as a direct result of the cutback in work permits. As a result, media in India in particular from the Times of India to the Hindustan Times have been reporting aggressively on the latest status of the H-1B visas, as many Indian students with IT-related degrees often apply for jobs with major U.S. companies after graduation.
Workers' unions and other employee groups, however, argue that the jobs skilled foreigners have taken could go to U.S. workers, so a reduction in visas would only help give more jobs back to U.S. citizens. That argument assumes that qualified workers with the necessary skills are already within the United States, which many employers say simply don't exist in ample numbers within the country's borders. For instance, education analysts point out that there were less than 60,000 engineering graduates in the United States in 2000, down from nearly 80,000 in the mid-1980s. Moreover, many of those recent graduates of U.S. schools have been foreign nationals, and if they are unable to stay on in the United States after graduation, many will be going back to their home countries and taking the skills they acquired at the U.S. schools with them.
Visas "should not stand in the way of the ability of U.S. employers to hire foreign nationals with graduate degrees from American universities," said the chamber's Johnson.
With less than a month to ago until the elections, however, it is highly unlikely that the visa issue will be dealt with any time soon.