US visa block on foreign workers

September 4, 1998

A POLITICAL impasse over the availability of visas has shut the door on foreign academics who had hoped to enter the United States in time to teach or do research in the academic year now beginning.

The 65,000 cap on the number of temporary visas available for such visits was reached in May, and the US Senate quickly agreed to raise the quota gradually to 115,000 in low annual increments. But a small number of lawmakers in the House of Representatives attached a provision insisting that employers be required to prove they first attempted to recruit Americans before hiring a foreigner for any job.

"American workers can compete with anyone," proclaimed the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a labour group that has lobbied against raising the quota on professionals' visas.

Despite compromise negotiations, the bill has been indefinitely postponed in Congress. The deadlock means that there are no visas for anyone who had hoped for an academic posting in the autumn.

About 15 per cent of the so-called H-1B visas, allowing a foreigner to work at a skilled US job for up to six years, had been awarded to professors and postdoctoral researchers.

The restriction has been condemned by high-technology employers suffering a shortage of computer programmers and other skilled professionals. Like universities, they cannot hire any foreign workers until the new federal fiscal year begins on October 1 and a new round of visas begins to be issued.

Officials said the backup is also expected to intensify demand for next year's 65,000 H-1B visas.

With the US economic boom driving an increase in the number of skilled workers applying for visas, the Senate had proposed allowing an additional 20,000 by September 30. After that, the Senate plan would have raised the number of temporary visas to 95,000 next year, 105,000 in 2000, and 115,000 in 2001 and 2002, before reverting to its original level of 65,000 in 2003.

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