Amid the heated debate in Washington over border enforcement and citizenship for illegal immigrants lies a Senate bill provision that would significantly raise the number of annual visas for highly skilled foreign workers.
The high-tech industry has aggressively pushed for the change, claiming educated foreigners are vital to the industry's health and global leadership. U.S. technology workers and other opponents contend the expansion is unnecessary and will only bring down wages and discourage American youngsters from pursuing tech careers.
Back in 2004, opponents successfully lobbied to cut the so-called H1-B visa quota by two-thirds, from the 195,000 set in 2001, to 65,000. But this week, tech firms from Silicon Valley and elsewhere won support from the Senate to insert a provision in its sweeping immigration bill that would increase the annual maximum number of H1-B visas to 115,000, beginning next year.
In addition, immigrants with certain advanced degrees would not be subject to the caps, which could rise by 20 percent depending on labor market demands.
The tech industry contends it needs the expanded pool of foreign skilled workers. The industry complains that it met the annual cap on the popular H1-B visas just 20 days into the government's 2005-06 fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
"American companies need access to that talent. If we don't keep them, they'll go back and work for the foreign companies that compete against our companies," said Jeff Lande, senior vice president of the Washington-based Information Technology Association of America, a leading industry trade group.
"Until there are enough American students graduating in those fields to meet the demands for innovation in the 21st century, U.S. companies should not be forced to fall behind their global competitors," Hewlett-Packard Co. wrote in a letter May 2, applauding the Senate's efforts to raise the visa quota.
Though H1-B visas have long been a sensitive issue, the proposed increase this time is getting a bit of a short shrift as it's overshadowed by the more high-profile, politically heated debates over other immigration reforms.
"This year, the debate is all about the enforcement provisions and guest worker programs," Lande said.
Opponents from labor groups say they are having a hard time finding a sympathetic ear on Capitol Hill as they argue how the increased number of visas will give foreigners high-level jobs that should go to American workers.
Yet neither side can confidently predict an outcome of the proposed H1-B increase.
Tough negotiations loom to reconcile the comprehensive Senate bill with the immigration bill passed earlier by the House of Representatives — a version that does not address skilled worker visas at all and focuses heavily on penalties surrounding illegal immigration.
Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who will be a member of the joint House-Senate Conference Committee that will hammer out a compromise bill, called the Senate bill only a "first step."
"It will be an uphill battle to craft a bill that both the House and the Senate can support," Feinstein said in a statement following the Senate bill passage Thursday.
Feinstein noted, however, that she believes the number of new visas should be "at the right level," and that the clauses allowing for the visa exceptions beyond the proposed 115,000 cap should be removed.
If the H1-B provisions ultimately don't make it into the compromise bill, the high-tech industry vows to continue its fight.
"Let's say it doesn't happen this year, then we'll start it again next year," said John Palafoutas, a chief lobbyist for the American Electronics Association trade group.