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US may eliminate H1-B visas

Aziz Haniffa in Washington DC | July 16, 2003 13:08 IST
Last Updated: July 16, 2003 13:54 IST

The United States may do away with H1-B visas delivering a knockout punch to Indian IT professionals wanting to take up jobs in the US.

A bill moved by right-wing Republican lawmaker Tom Tancredo in the US Congress to eliminate H1-B visas has every chance of being enacted, said sources.

Tancredo, a right-wing Republican lawmaker from Colorado, is known for his vehemently anti-immigration views.

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The sluggish US economy, the uproar over outsourcing and the rising unemployment rate have fuelled the need for steps to keep American jobs from being lost to countries like India, said senior aides to Tancredo.

The aides, including one who drafted Tancredo's 15-line bill proposing the elimination of all visas allowed under the H1-B category, said that "the high-tech industry itself which fought so hard for the expansion of the number of IT professionals allowed into the country are projecting that the technology job outlook will remain soft and that more jobs will be outsourced overseas to countries like India, so why do we need this category at all."

"It is no secret that American workers in the technology industry are losing their jobs to the upsurge in outsourcing, so the Congressman strongly believes that this category (H1-B) has to be done away with to protect the few American jobs and American workers remaining in this industry," they said.

"You bet we are going to push like crazy to make sure this bill progresses and ensure that all those who are for it and against it are counted when we finally try and get a vote on it," one of the aides said.

Tancredo is also chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus.

Other Congressional sources, belonging to the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, believe that Tancredo's bill -- which follows those by Republican John Mica of Florida and Democrat DeLauro of Connecticut to restrict the intra-company L-1 visa category -- is a move to gain political mileage and to exploit the rising tide of anti-immigration fervour in the US.

But these sources acknowledge that it is tough to argue against the case made by the likes of Tancredo, Mica, DeLauro and others eager to jump on the bandwagon, when the IT industry itself is bemoaning a decline, first by the bursting of the Internet bubble and now due to massive outsourcing by American IT giants.

They acknowledged that US lawmakers are acquiescing to the intense lobbying by labour unions and anti-immigrant groups who argue that American workers are displaced by these imported workers and that this program has only benefited the vested interest of companies in the US bent on depressing wages paid to American workers by substituting foreign employees.

India traditionally has accounted for the bulk of H1-B visas issued over the years -- almost 50 per cent -- when the IT industry in the US was booming.

When the IT industry was in full bloom, thousands of Indian highly skilled IT professionals came to the US on this visa, initially issued for three years and extended to a maximum of six years, during which time, the workers usually would be sponsored for their immigrant visa (green card) by their employers.

In the last two years, many Indian and other foreign workers had been laid off, with many of them returning home, but the few living for months on their savings have begun to compete resolutely for permanent jobs.

Currently, the number of H-1 B visas allowed has been reverted to the original 65,000 annually, from the peak of 195,000 a year, which was approved by Congress three years ago when the industry successfully lobbied for this increase following an acute shortage for technically skilled professionals.

A new study by the Information Technology Association of America predicted that the technology job outlook would remain soft in 2003 and said that the demand for IT professionals is at a historic low as more and more positions are outsourced overseas.

The ITAA study said that failing a dramatic turnaround in the national economy, a recovery in the tech sector in 2003 will most likely continue to be a 'jobless' one.

It said a survey it had undertaken after contacting 400 hiring managers from IT and non-IT companies nationwide showed that demand for hiring IT workers is at a historic low of only 493,000 positions over the next 12 months. This is down from 1.6 million at the start of 2000 and less than half of the predicted 1.1 million positions needed at the start of 2002.

The ITAA said that 67 per cent of those interviewed said they thought the hiring demand would stay the same or decline over the next 12 months.

It said companies were also moving more positions overseas, with 12 per cent of IT companies and 3 per cent of non-IT companies saying they have already opened up overseas operations.

The ITAA said large IT companies were most likely to say they have made this move. Twenty-two per cent have already moved work offshore and another 15 per cent of IT firms say they will move jobs overseas in the next 12 months. Four per cent on non-IT firms say the same.

In terms of supply of H1-B workers to the US, the latest report by the National Association of Software and Service Companies said that India, which accounted for 77,000 H1-B visas in 2001, provided only 33,000 in 2002, and the total was expected to drop to 30,000 or less in 2003.

The US immigration authorities have said that this year, despite non-technical professions like nursing and teaching also being issued H1-B visas, the quota is yet to be filled and is unlikely to top the quota limit when the fiscal year ends.

The aides to Tancredo said the ITAA study and a recent Gallup poll which indicated that nearly half of the American population wants reduced immigration levels 'vindicate our efforts to do away with this category and sharply curtail immigration.'

The Gallup poll that was conducted from June 12 to June 18 found that 47 per cent Americans believe immigration levels should be reduced, with only 13 per cent wanting them increased. Thirty-seven per cent have said they should be maintained at current levels.

Tancredo aides said, "We will shortly call for a hearing in the Judiciary Committee and then we hope to push for a vote both in the Committee and in the full House."

But as of now, they said, they did not have any co-sponsors, and refused to disclose whether Tancredo's bill would be married with the bills to restrict L visas introduced by Mica and DeLauro.

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