U.S. businesses are asking Congress to expand a visa program that permits a limited number of skilled workers from other countries to take jobs in the United States. Under the "H-1B" program, foreigners can work for U.S. businesses for six years and then apply for permanent residency.
Robert Meltzer, President of Visanow.com, an online visa application service, says foreign talent has been a critical component of the U.S. high tech work force for more than a decade now.
He said nothing underscores that fact more than the annual increases in the number of H-1B visas issued. Mr. Meltzer said, "It wasn't that long ago actually when the cap was 55,000 and now the cap is up to 195,000. But, more importantly, there are a lot of non-cap applications that are approved every year. Last fiscal year, which ended in October 2001, the U.S. received about 350,000 H-1B applications."
Not all parts of the country are applying. Ironically, Seattle immigration attorney Gregory McCall says, demand for H1B visas has plunged in the very part of the United States where the high-tech revolution started - the West Coast. "With the entrepreneurial spirit here," he said, "with the significant venture capital funding for new enterprises, there was a huge, huge bubble that burst, and that bursting has left a lot of people looking for work here."
Two years ago, Greg McCall said, he was inundated with client requests for H-1B visas. Today things are different. He continued, "I would say that I am getting nearly as many calls from people at these companies asking what they have to do in layoff situations as calls about wanting to hire new people."
But while many West Coast, high-tech ventures have folded, Robert Meltzer says the need for skilled technicians has increased nationally.
He said that's because technology has become such a vital business component that just about every company these days needs at least a few high-tech people on board. "Although consulting companies were laying off, say, 50 people, there may have been 50 companies that realized they had to hire two. And so there has been an increase in two significant sectors - computer information systems and in engineering," he said.
Despite the "dot-com" collapse, the decline in U.S. economic growth and the immigration issues raised in the aftermath of September 11, Mr. Meltzer said U.S. demand for skilled foreign workers is on the rise.