Bill Gates says more skilled foreign workers needed, critics disagree

Microsoft‘s Bill Gates Wednesday urged Congress to relax caps on visas for highly-skilled foreign workers.

While Gates had the ear of Congress, critics say the H-1B lowers wages or outright robs Americans of jobs. In addition, they say eligibility requirements are vague and the system is abused by foreign companies, who are only required to have a presence in the United States to use the H-1B visas for their employees.

Gates has been crusading the past few years on the topic of H-1B visas, which allow highly skilled immigrants to work in the United States, saying the cap of 65,000 per year is “arbitrarily low.”

But there is a different picture forming, critics say.

Recent statistics put out by the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services and the National Science Board show that many of the H-1B visas are going to foreign companies and that half of the recipients are from India.

Indian nationals received 54 per cent all H-1B visas approved in 2006, according to a study by the National Science Board. That same year, 51 per cent of all visa recipients worked in computer-related jobs.

A ranking released by the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services show that Microsoft and Intel are the only true major U.S. technology companies ranked in the Top 10 of visa approvals in 2007.

Ironically, the top two, outsourcers Infosys Technologies and Wipro are both based in Bangalore, India. In fact, the data shows six of the top 10 are based in India.

The top two companies were also the top two in fiscal 2006, according to data released last year by U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). The two senators claim outsourcers are abusing the H-1B rules. Last year, the pair introduced “The H-1B and L-1 Visa Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act of 2007.”

Critics contend foreign-based companies use their U.S. locations to train workers before funneling them back to India.

The jobs issue has been a contentious one and is even more so now that the United States is facing a recession.

“Bill Gates, Oracle, and Google strongly lobby for more visas,” says James Kritcher, vice president of IT at White Electronic Designs in Phoenix. “But at the same time, these companies receive thousands of resumes every week. I would think that they have their pick of top talent and could meet their hiring objectives without the use of visas.”

Some experts say American workers don’t find Microsoft or Gates to be genuine over concern for the future of U.S. innovation. Microsoft has foreign workers north of Redmond on the Canadian side of the border where immigration laws are more lax.

“Microsoft left the U.S.” by sending work and jobs overseas, says Sonia Munoz, president of Immigration Legal Counsel, a law firm specializing in immigration law. “Some Americans feel the H-1B is evil and gives away jobs [that] Americans could have, but if a company leaves physically from the U.S. — that takes away far more jobs than H-1B does.”

Gates has been the vocal champion of visa reform, however, holding to the spirit of the law that originally was drafted to allow U.S. companies to recruit the best technologists, engineers and others from around the world when the U.S. was unable to meet demand.

“The United States will find it far more difficult to maintain its competitive edge over the next 50 years if it excludes those who are able and willing to help us compete,”

Gates told the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology, which was celebrating its 50th anniversary Wednesday. His oral statements were documented in a 19-page written testimony submitted to the committee. 

Gates said he was optimistic about the potential for technology to improve people’s lives and tackle important issues. He repeatedly made references to education and health programs funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which he co-chairs.

But Gates Wednesday told the committee that he was less optimistic that the United States. would continue as a global leader in technology innovation.

He said there is a need for better educational opportunities for American students; increased federal funding for basic scientific research; incentives for private-sector research and development, and the loosening of caps on H-1B visas, which allow highly skilled immigrants to work in the United States.

He specifically called on Congress to drop the cap on H-1B visas.

“Evidence is mounting that we are failing to make the investments in our young people, our workers, our scientific research infrastructure, and our economy that will enable us to retain our global innovation leadership,” Gates said.

He said one goal should be to “double the number of science, technology, and mathematics graduates by 2015.” And he added that funding is needed to train the next generation of innovators.

“If we are to align our immigration policy with global realities and ensure our place as the world’s leading innovator, Congress must make additional changes to our employment-based immigration system,” he said.

He cited immigration statistics that show that the supply of H-1B visas in 2007 ran out four months before they were even valid. In fiscal 2008, the H-1B visas ran out just one day after applications could be filed.

Gates put forth three steps that should be taken by the United States: encourage the best foreign students to enroll in U.S. colleges and universities and to remain in the United States when their studies are completed if they desire; that Congress should create a streamlined path to permanent resident status for highly skilled workers; and third, Congress should increase the cap on visas.

He concluded that the country stands at a crossroads.

“If we do not implement policies like those I have outlined today, the center of progress will shift to other nations that are more committed to the pursuit of technical excellence,” he said.

While the debate continues to rage over immigration limits, some say there is a silver lining in the back and forth.

“Leaders of a company of Microsoft’s profile speaking to Congress certainly help bring home the U.S. need for talent,” said Bo Cooper, a specialist in business immigration law in Paul Hastings’ national immigration practice.

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