Randal Bryant, dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, said the H-1B program helps his foreign students get jobs in the private sector and hasn't seemed to diminish job opportunities for his American students.
"The companies that are talking to us are just as happy to hire Americans as anybody," Mr. Bryant said. "This idea that bringing in more immigrants is stealing jobs from Americans is entirely unfounded" in the field of computer science, he said. "There's a shortage of workers with the right qualifications."
But, he said, the system is "clunky" and imperfect. For one, it limits foreigners' opportunities to jobs in larger companies that have the wherewithal to endure the time-consuming and bureaucratic visa application process.
"The whole process is not a pleasant experience," he said.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said he supports the effort to expand the availability of foreign students to obtain work visas.
"These are among the world's most productive people [who] will help expand our economic pie for everybody, and we should welcome them," Mr. Toomey said.
"These are people who come here with great intellectual capital, great human capital," he said. "People who come here and get an education and further improve their own human capital, and then they get kicked out of the country so they can go somewhere else and compete against us in another country makes no sense at all."
Increased availability of H-1B visas would help local companies who can't find enough workers with the specialized knowledge and skills employers need, said Valerie May, owner of May Law Group, an immigration law office headquartered in Pittsburgh, where many companies hire foreign workers for specialized jobs in engineering, medicine and computer science.
"If you have a very specialized product, you need the best and the brightest, and there are only so many of them in any given group of people," Ms. May said. "You have a very finite pool in the U.S. -- the top graduates from an engineering school or the top graduates from Carnegie Mellon in computer science. If you expand that pool to include individuals from top schools in India and Europe and China, you're increasing the pool of the most highly qualified individuals."
Nationwide, an average of 312,000 applications are received each year for 65,000 spots, according to a study last year by the Brookings Institute. Requests focus on large metropolitan centers such as Pittsburgh, which has a high demand for visas for engineers and computer scientists.
The caps apply only to the private sector, not to universities and nonprofits, which sponsor about 30,000 H-1B visa holders, many of them educators and health care providers. With the exception of fashion models, all H-1B visa holders must have at least a bachelor's degree and be working in a job requiring theoretical and practical application of highly specialized knowledge.
Sponsoring employers must receive approval from the departments of Labor, State and Homeland Security.
They also must pay between $1,575 and $4,325 in filing fees and taxes, including an assessment that's used to fund job training programs aimed at filling the gap between the skills available in the workforce and those needed by employers.
Tuesday's proposal includes an additional fee of $1,250 to $2,500, depending on company size, to fund programs to train domestic workers in science, technology, engineering and math -- known together by the acronym STEM.
Technology company executives say they are happy to pay fees that will go toward educating the American workforce. Microsoft had proposed paying as much as $10,000 in additional fees for each visa.
Visa taxes and fees already have amounted to about a billion dollars over the last decade, according to the Brookings Institution.
"Having a lot of high-skilled immigrants is a temporary fix. The logic behind the fees is that we need to train our own American workforce for the jobs of today and tomorrow so that we don't have to rely so much on H-1B visa holders," said Neil G. Ruiz, senior policy analyst for the Brookings Institute and lead author of the nonprofit think tank's July report.
His report showed that the greatest demand for H-1B visas are from companies in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
H-1B visas have been offered since 1990. Since then, the cap has fluctuated between 65,000 and 195,000.
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