H-1B visa cap limit makes filling skilled jobs tough

Help Wanted: H-1B visa cap limit makes filling skilled jobs tough

Maria Barrios

The topic of immigration is a hot-button issue among members of Congress and their constituents. However, the potential impact of the existing cap on H-1B visas on the U.S. economy and the education system adds another important dimension to the immigration debate many may not have considered.

The H-1B visa is a short-term authorization for non-immigrants that allows U.S. employers to supplement the existing labor force with highly skilled temporary workers. The industries particularly in need are the medical, high tech, oil and gas, and education sectors (primary through high school).

Despite the fact that in Louisiana and nationally there is an increasing demand for H-1B workers, the cap remains at 65,000. In addition, the cap for the H-1B Advanced Degree Exemption remains at 20,000. Under the exemption, foreign workers must have a master’s or higher-level degree from a U.S. academic institution.

For fiscal 2009, the first filing period ran from April 1-7 and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received roughly 163,000 applications. Those applications were placed into a lottery the following week through a computer-generated random selection process.

“This year the USCIS received twice as many applications as they could give away,” McGlinchey Stafford labor and employment attorney Carl Falstrom said.

Jesse Marchan, a solo immigration law practitioner in Mandeville who applies for visas on behalf of employers nationwide, said there is a national shortage of nurses, medical technologists, physical therapists and teachers.

“I have performed H-1B visa applications for both New York City Public Schools and Baltimore City Public Schools,” Marchan said.

‘Best and brightest’

Like the rest of the nation, New Orleans also needs highly qualified foreign employees.

“New Orleans is in need of professional workers,” Marchan said. “For instance, teachers for math and science have been recruited from the Philippines to New Orleans and Baton Rouge.”

Marchan said there’s a high demand in post-Katrina New Orleans for medical workers such as physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech pathologists and medical technologists, as well as accountants and engineers.

The U.S. economy needs the best of the best to maintain its super power position, Falstrom said.

“We (the U.S.) want the best and brightest and we are not able to get them anymore,” he said. “We are putting out signals that we have enough highly educated and skilled professions and that we don’t want any more. Other nations will happily take them and then they will beat us in international competition. What that leads to is that work is leaving the U.S. The work will go where the people who can do it are located. If they are not here, then the U.S. has lost.”

One misconception is the idea that hiring a foreign employee takes a job away from an American, experts say. On March 12, Microsoft founder Bill Gates told the House of Representatives’ Committee on Science and Technology that more jobs for Americans are created with the employment of highly skilled professionals from other nations.

“If we increase the number of H-1B visas that are available to U.S. companies, employment of U.S. nationals would likely grow as well,” Gates said. “A recent study of technology companies in the S&P 500 found that, for every H-1B visa requested, these leading U.S. technology companies increased their overall employment by five workers.”

David Cheramie, executive director for the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, agrees with Gates that H-1B visa holders are not taking away jobs from Americans.

“It is not like they (teachers that are H-1B visa holders) are taking any other teacher job,” Cheramie said. “There is a teacher shortage throughout Louisiana, the country and even overseas. The fact that most countries are experiencing a teacher shortage as well means the U.S. is competing with other nations for their top teachers. With the cap, this means that we have less access and one less tool to convince top teachers to come to Louisiana. The result is that schools aren’t getting the best of the best in terms of educators.”

Effects on education

The inability of schools to obtain H-1B visas for highly qualified teachers could end up having a detrimental affect on the United States’ public education system.

“There is a huge need for high-quality, fluent, native foreign language teachers in bilingual education,” said Brooke Muntean, whose doctoral dissertation is on bilingual education. “The only way to access them is to bring people in on visas. To keep up the quality of bilingual education, we need these visas to continue.”

Founded in 2000, the International School is a public school in New Orleans that provides language immersion in French or Spanish, emphasizes international awareness and celebrates diversity. Many of the school’s teachers are native speakers of French or Spanish.

“Most of our teachers hold a visa of some sort,” said Head of School and Executive Director of Operations Sean Wilson. “Roughly 15 of our teachers are H-1B visa holders.”

The school had 57 teachers this year.

As the first multi-language immersion school chartered by Louisiana, the school is quickly gaining accolades. The Center for Education Reform named it the National Charter School of the Year in 2007. However, schools such as the International School could suffer if obtaining H-1B visas remains difficult.

“With the H-1B visa, you have a certain level of education,” Cheramie said. “The cap is closing the door on the highly educated and qualified immigrant. It can have a detrimental effect on education.”

Copyright 2008 Dolan Media Newswires

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