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In a congressional debate where amnesty and border security reign supreme, Senate scrutiny over the lesser-known issue of high-tech foreign workers entering the United States has caused a last-minute lobbyist scramble. A recent letter by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) targeting several U.S.- and India-based companies that use H-1B visas sent a shudder through the high-tech community, which was hoping to increase the number of available visas in the current immigration legislation. The action left organizations like the U.S.-India Business Council and the Information Technology Industry Council playing defense on Capitol Hill, while companies like Microsoft work to quell the senators’ concerns before the Senate wraps up its version of the immigration bill. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill this week. “That letter set off alarm bells,” says Ron Somers, president of the U.S.-India Business Council, the lobbying arm for U.S. business interests in India. Somers also served as Unocal Corp.’s chief executive in India and vice chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in India. “The implications aren’t comfortable. Nevertheless, we’ve advised our companies to comply.” On May 14, Grassley and Durbin co-authored a letter that was sent to nine companies that used most of the visas last year — all nine are members of the council. In the letter, the senators said they were looking into reports of fraud and abuse in the visa program and asked for specific information from the companies, such as how many U.S. citizens they employ, how many employees had been laid off, and the average wage of H-1B employees. The letter stated they wanted responses by May 29. The council wasted no time responding to concerns that its members were misusing the visa program. The council contacted its 250 members, which include Honeywell, Lockheed Martin, Merrill Lynch, Alcoa, and Microsoft, and urged them to ratchet up their lobbying efforts on one of the most crucial issues in the business world — getting enough foreign high-tech workers at their companies. Weeks before sending the letter, Grassley and Durbin introduced legislation that would overhaul the visa program and give priority to U.S. workers. Although the legislation has not moved since it was been introduced, most of the bill’s provisions — including requirements that H-1B employers make efforts to hire U.S. workers before seeking foreign ones and that the U.S. Department of Labor conduct random audits of companies that use H-1B visas — have been included in the underlying immigration bill. Skeptics of the companies’ skilled-worker programs applaud the congressional oversight. “We have several hundred members that are being disproportionately displaced out of their jobs and careers,” says Kim Berry, president of the Programmers Guild, a nonprofit collaboration of pro-U.S. worker groups like the Coalition for the Future American Worker. Berry, who was in communication with Durbin as he crafted the bill, says the group fears that HI-B visas will continue to put U.S. workers’ jobs in the information technology field at risk. A FEW BAD APPLES? Though the U.S.-India Business Council has advised its members to respond to Grassley and Durbin’s requests, so far none of the top nine companies, which used nearly 20,000 of the available H-1B visas in 2006, have done so. Six are India-based companies. The three U.S. companies are: Wipro; Fremont, Calif.-based Infosys Technologies Ltd.; and New York-based Tata Consultancy Services. The letter also points to concerns that foreign workers are receiving significantly lower wages than new U.S. graduates, that many top corporations using H-1B visas are outsourcing their recruited foreign workers to other companies, and that firms are allegedly laying off U.S. workers to eventually employ H-1B visa holders. “We’ve given them until May 29th, so we hope they will,” says Beth Levine, press secretary for Grassley. This year’s deadline for H-1B visa applications was April 2. Companies filed 119,000 applications, although only 65,000 visas were available. Just as the U.S.-India Business Council was attempting to create a lobbying blitz, sending out solicitations to 22 major law and lobbying firms to help shape policy regarding U.S. investment in India, the senators’ inquiry forced it to shift gears. The council is now devoting its time to beefing up its lobbying campaign to dramatically increase the number of H-1B visas available to foreign workers. Though the current immigration bill calls for 115,000 H-1B visas, the council and other companies and technology trade associations are pleading for more. “We want more H-1B visas. We want at least double the current amount. We can’t do enough to underscore, underline, or bold this effort,” Somers says. He says the council is lobbying “all members of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate and the House.” But the U.S.-India Business Council isn’t the only trade association vying for more H-1B visas to import foreign workers. Kara Calvert, director of government relations at the Information Technology Industry Council, has been cultivating allies in the Senate as it debates the immigration bill. With some of the major technology firms in the country as members, any move to keep ITIC’s roster from bringing in skilled tech workers from abroad could be bad for business. “We’re working hand-in-hand with lawmakers and individual companies to get the point across that we need more,” says Calvert, who prior to joining ITIC served as a legislative assistant to Sen. Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.). Enzi is co-sponsor of a bill that would increase the cap and could bring more than a million guest workers into the U.S. job market over the next seven to 10 years. Calvert says that Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who sponsored that bill and is a member of the Budget and Small Business and Entrepreneurship committees, has also been a big supporter of the visa program. Some companies have taken their pleas directly to Congress. In March, Microsoft founder Bill Gates told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that U.S. companies will find it difficult to maintain technological leadership if lawmakers don’t approve more visas for foreign workers. He said the number of H-1B visas available to his company “are running out faster and faster each year.” Microsoft is a member of both the U.S.-India Business Council and ITIC. Between 2001 and 2003, the number of H-1B visas available was at 195,000 a year — a number shared by all U.S. companies seeking foreign workers. Lobbyists got comfortable and began to slack on the issue and, in 2003, the number dropped to 65,000. “There was no proactive measure,” Calvert says. “After 9/11, we weren’t really in any dire need of H-1B visas. But over the last couple of years, we’ve gotten to the point where it’s become a crisis.” PERSISTENT OPPOSITION But all their lobbying might be for naught if the Programmers Guild has anything to do with it. The West Coast-based organization, a major proponent of H-1B visa legislation, doesn’t have a Washington office like most other lobby groups. But that hasn’t stopped Berry, president of the Guild, from lobbying via telephone daily. “Today, I’ve been talking to Sen. Sanders’ office about adding a fee to H-1B visas that would require companies to pay a $5,000 fee for each foreign worker granted a H-1B visa,” Berry says, referring to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Berry says he proposed the money go toward scholarship programs for U.S. students studying a technology-related field. “We’ve been pushing for similar bills for two years now,” he says. “We really think we could have something that would look out for the American worker this time.”
Osita Iroegbu can be contacted at [email protected].

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