A White House spokesman assured CFO.com that President Clinton is prepared to sign into a law an increase in the ceiling for H-1B visas, a step that’s been a key priority for high-tech companies in a tight labor market.
The bill sailed through Congress last week, but in the past, the President had threatened to veto the bill if it lacked a couple of provisions dear to the Administration.
But overwhelming, bipartisan support for the bill in Congress made it all but impossible for Clinton to reject it, and, the bill is strongly favored by the high-tech industry and other sectors that rely on foreign workers. With both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George Bush aggressively courting technology executives in their race to succeed Clinton, the bill’s progress has been closely followed in Silicon Valley and inside the Beltway.
Gore has already lobbied the Administration to sign the bill, which will raise the number of H-1B visas for skilled foreign workers from 115,000 this year to 195,000 for each of the next three years. The Senate’s 96-1 vote in favor of the bill and the House’s quick voice- vote approval underscored the overwhelming support behind the H-1B increase.
Patrick Dorton, a White House spokesman, told CFO.com this week that Clinton “is expected to sign the bill.”
Yet with all this reassurance, proponents of the bill are waiting until the President actually signs on the dotted line before they proclaim victory.
“We’ve heard that the President intends to sign the bill,” says Michael Eastman, H-1B lobbyist and director of government relations at LPA Inc., a trade group representing 230 employers that used to be called the Labor Policy Association. “I believe he has until the 17th to act on it. Obviously we won’t uncork the champagne until he signs it.”
“He has threatened to veto it,” adds Laura Foote Reiff, the Washington, D.C.-based attorney in charge of business immigration law for national firm Greenberg Traurig. “We are wondering whether he is going to carry through with his threat.”
Why the caution? Simply put, the Administration lobbied Congress through Wednesday to attach two provisions to the bill. One is the Latino Immigrant Fairness Act (LIFA). The second is an increase in the H-1B visa application fee, with the proceeds earmarked toward training American workers. Neither was included in the version of the H- 1B bill sent to the White House last week, but by this week, both houses approved raising the fee to $1,000 from its current $500.
Meanwhile it seems that the Administration has thrown in the towel on LIFA, although, publicly, the White House’s stance hasn’t changed.
The business community backed the higher fee because it will add funds toward educating and training Americans for high-tech jobs. Proponents of the fee hike see the measure as more of a long-term solution to the high-tech workforce shortage than the increases in the H- 1B visa limit Congress approves every few years.
“Now that the increased fee is there, which is what the President wanted, there’s certainly a feeling now that the President will sign the bill,” says Grant Mydland, director of the Technology Workforce Coalition and manager of government relations for computing and communications community CompTIA. “I think it’s not a question of if, but when.”
As for LIFA, few H-1B proponents are now concerned that the issue will stop the President from signing the H-1B bill. The provision is still tied up in debate in the House with no clear resolution. Mydland, who says there was some talk that the Democrats would try to attach it to other legislation, believes LIFA will be debated when a new Congress convenes next year.
Dorton, the White House spokesman, told CFO.com earlier this week that the passage of LIFA continues to be a priority for the Administration. The measure would enable immigrants with family and longstanding ties to their community in the United States to become naturalized.
Otherwise, all indications are pointing to the H-1B bill becoming law. “Nothing is definite,” Mydland says. “But the key is the 96-1 vote in the Senate. It shows overwhelming support for the bill. This is really a win-win for everyone so it would be tough for him not to sign the bill.”
Reiff is also confident of the outcome. “I think he’ll sign it at the end of the week,” she says. “I know the Gore campaign is going to put a lot of pressure on the White House to sign this thing. He’s supposed to be a friend of the tech community.”
Of course, there’s no guarantee that the new visa ceiling will sate the high-tech industry’s demand for skilled employees. But this bill will at least clear up a backlog of approximately 40,000 visa applications pending before the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Under the new law, applications that came in after March 2000, when this year’s fiscal cap was reached, will not count toward the 2001 cap.
“My guess is that this will be the first time we don’t hit the cap in four years,” Reiff says.
It’s also possible that the higher limit will give U.S. companies enough time to match their demand for H-1B workers with the annual visa limit.
“They won’t be under the same pressure to file early because they knew it would be hit,” Eastman adds. “It makes much more sense to hire as you need people rather than try to anticipate and have circumstances change.”