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Stopgap visas

October 6, 2000

The passage of the H-1B visa program, increasing the number of temporary visas available to foreign high-tech workers, will provide significant relief to high-tech companies looking for talented workers to keep their businesses growing. But the special visa program is only a stop-gap solution that doesn't address the more fundamental problems created by past government intervention into the job market through immigration controls.

The likelihood that those problems will be addressed in a systematic, intelligent and humane manner, especially insofar as the H-1B program provides symptomatic relief, remains rather low.

The H-1B bill was passed this week by a 96-1 margin in the Senate and a voice vote in the House, and President Clinton has agreed to sign it. The bill will allow 195,000 skilled workers a year, over and above normal immigration quotas, for the next three years to get a special six-year visa that will allow them to stay in the United States and work chiefly for high-tech companies in need of computing, engineering and scientific skills. It would also exempt foreign graduates of U.S. masters or doctoral programs from visa requirements.

The program will help high-tech companies, such as Newport Beach's Conexant, which lobbied hard for the bill, to continue to attract top talent from other countries at a time when U.S. unemployment is low and a large number of high-tech jobs are simply not filled. Under the previous law, 115,000 high-tech workers per year were allowed in, but that quota was used up by March 17.

A number of interest groups tried to attach other immigration reform measures to the bill, such as granting legal status to immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and a limited amnesty for long-term illegal immigrants. But some of those measures were controversial, and Congress decided to pass a relatively "clean" H-1B bill this year and postpone other immigration issues until next year.

Sooner or later, however, Congress will have to address the harm done to American society, the concept of personal liberty and the U.S. economy by its unnecessarily restrictive and inconsistent immigration laws. The core problem is that the overall immigration quotas are simply too low in a healthy American economy.

The best long-term approach is to raise the quotas or even to abolish them altogether, perhaps accompanied by limits on the ability of new immigrants to apply for taxpayer-funded benefits for a number of years. But few politicians will even introduce such ideas for discussion.

In the meantime, expanded visa programs create some questionable conditions for immigrant workers. Those who get H-1B visas will be a privileged class in the sense that they will be recipients of a special privilege created by government and not available to everybody. But they will be a strange sort of class - free to work for six years for the company that initially hires them, but severely restricted in their ability to test the dynamic job market by changing jobs. Such limitations on individuals are objectionable in a free society.

Liberalizing immigration laws, the correct approach, is not only a highly emotional issue for many Americans, it runs into the fact that a great many people - attorneys, recruiters, immigration law counselors - benefit from the unneceesary complexity of the current immigration laws.

So doing the sensible thing will not be easy.