Letting in the Skilled

Congressman Lamar Smith (R) of Texas recently introduced a bill raising the number of temporary visas that can be given foreigners with high skills.

"Because the success of our economy is indebted to advances in computer technology, we cannot ignore the demand for additional information technology workers," Mr. Smith said.

The bill spans three years and will allow 95,000 skilled workers into the United States this fiscal year, ending Sept. 30. The present cap of 65,000 H-1B visas will run out any day. In fiscal 1999, the limit will be 105,000, and in fiscal 2000, 115,000.

Smith's proposal makes economic sense. Filling high-tech labor gaps can help keep companies and jobs in the US. But this program should be relatively short-term and small in numbers. American workers, when available, should be given first crack at these generally high-paying jobs. The bill meets these criteria.

Its timing, however, is somewhat problematic. Silicon Valley companies have laid off about 15,000 employees in the past few weeks. Such prominent firms as Intel, National Semiconductor, and Silicon Graphics are among them. When the merger of computermakers Compaq and Digital Equipment goes forward, more people could get pink slips.

Critics contend, moreover, that foreigners given H-1B visas take jobs from Americans who are already qualified or can be trained for the high-tech jobs. And some companies may be as keen to push down labor costs with imported workers as to fill a specific labor shortage.

Representative Smith is aware that companies may, and sometimes do, abuse H-1B visas. So his bill tightens up the requirements for employers to get visas. An employer will not be able to lay off a qualified American worker and replace that person with an H-1B alien. An employer must first take significant action to recruit and retain American workers in the specialty job for which it seeks a foreigner. The Labor Department will be able to investigate an employer if 15 percent or more workers are H-1B aliens.

Nor does the US want a "guest worker" system such as that which has troubled Germany.

We urge passage of the Smith bill or a conference version closely resembling it. Its worker safeguards have won approval from the AFL-CIO and from the Clinton administration.

Perhaps final legislation should also include easing the red tape needed for a green card at the end of the six years allowed under the H-1B program. If migrant professionals are wooed for their valuable skills, and they fit into US society all those years, they should make good citizens.

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