Updated at 12:57 p.m. PDT to add the Democratic leadership's comments.
WASHINGTON--The U.S. Congress won't be beefing up the number of H-1B visas anytime soon, the chief legal adviser to an influential Republican predicted Monday.
Proposals to raise the annual H-1B cap would sail through Congress if called up for a floor vote, but political considerations mean that probably won't happen anytime soon, said George Fishman, chief counsel to the Republican side of a U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee panel on immigration.
That's because the Democratic leadership, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has given the Congressional Hispanic Caucus "veto power" over any immigration-related bill that comes to the House floor, regardless of its popularity, Fishman said at a panel discussion here hosted by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports an increase in the H-1B cap.
"The Hispanic Caucus sees it as a bargaining chip to get what they want, which is comprehensive immigration reform, amnesty for illegal immigrants, whatever you want to call it," Fishman said. "Until the Democratic leadership allows legislation (related to H-1Bs) to go to the floor on its own merits, that's the situation we have here."
Fishman's boss, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), is the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee and has proposed an "emergency" H-1B increase to 195,000 in 2008 and 2009--the highest level since its peak between 2001 and 2003.
Still, increasing the cap is hardly a one-sided issue, with a number of Democrats--particularly those in districts with prominent high-tech companies--onboard as well.
"Democrats are committed to working together toward balanced immigration reform, including H-1B visas, and we are continuing to hold hearings in order to move this issue forward," an aide to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told CNET News.com on Monday.
H-1Bs are temporary work permits that allow foreigners with at least a bachelor's degree in their area of specialty to work in the United States for up to six years. Currently, the annual cap stands at 65,000, with an additional 20,000 for foreigners with advanced degrees from U.S. universities. This year, U.S. immigration officials reported receiving more than 163,000 petitions for next year's slots within the first five days and are no longer accepting new applications.
Seated alongside Fishman at the Heritage event were two other H-1B proponents similarly pessimistic about changes occurring this year: Kelly Krieger Hunt, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's senior manager for immigration policy, and James Sherk, a Heritage Foundation labor policy fellow. Sherk pointed to a study he and a colleague recently conducted, which estimated the United States will take in an extra $69 billion in tax revenue if 100,000 additional H-1B visaholders are allowed to work each year for the next eight years.
But those positive depictions of H-1Bs are not without controversy. During the question-and-answer session, a representative from a group called the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports more restrictive immigration policies, asked why the panel had been stacked with pro-H1B advocates and suggested every employer applying for the visas should be subject to a full, on-site investigation to verify its authenticity.
Although Smith's brief "emergency" H-1B bill doesn't propose new checks on the system, Fishman said his boss is aware of concerns about their abuse and wants to strike a balance. On the one hand, high-tech companies like Microsoft and Google prize H-1B visas because they say those work permits allow them to fill gaps in their operations for which there is a shortage of qualified Americans. On the other hand, some American programmers say abuse of the system has displaced American workers and depressed their wages.
There's truth to both perspectives, Fishman said, adding that the Department of Labor isn't as well-equipped to fight suspected fraud in the H-1B program as it could be. Part of the reason, he said, is that the system is based on "attestations" from employers that they're hiring employees with the proper qualifications and at the requisite wage levels, and the Labor Department "has to wait around for some to complain" before it opens an investigation, Fishman said.
"The H-1B program can and usually does operate to the benefit of both American high-tech companies and American workers," he said. "It is the job of Congress to ensure that it always does."