Will Ceiling Fall?

Tech pros mobilize to take on the H-1B visa quota.

During the year he was out of work due to a dearth of consulting work, Boris Galinsky devoted his time not only to a job search but also to educating and haranguing legislators about the reasons so many tech workers are jobless in the first place.

"I didnt want to take [the job situation] lying down," said Galinsky, in Summit, N.J. "Something has to be done about the practice of giving away our jobs to foreign workers."

Galinskys campaign didnt end when he got rehired. He is still one of a growing number of irate technology workers—some unemployed, some underemployed, some simply concerned—that has been meeting with U.S. and state lawmakers.

The purpose of the meetings: Galinsky and others like him are being galvanized not only by technology job loss but also by the possibility of getting legislators to push down the H-1B visa ceiling. That quota is scheduled to drop from its current level of 195,000 to 65,000 by Oct. 1, failing U.S. congressional action to maintain current numbers.

How likely is that? Early signs show that legislators such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., after watching jobs vanish in their areas, may vote to lower the ceiling. In addition, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee—the agency that determines key immigration legislation such as the ceiling number—earlier in the year addressed an Indian business group, telling members that the H-1B visa program will be "tightened," according to reports in Indian newspapers.

Participation in pro-labor groups such as the Programmers Guild is also growing, with technology workers "crawling out of the woodwork" to tackle issues involving technology jobs, said John Miano, former chairman of the guild.

So many people are showing up at Programmers Guild meetings—which are held in Morris Plains, N.J.—that the group is considering splitting in two.

Meanwhile, groups that have traditionally lobbied for a high visa ceiling—including the Information Technology Association of America and Indias National Association of Software and Service Companies—are keeping a low profile.

Nasscom did not reply to requests for information. Harris Miller, president of the ITAA, based in Arlington, Va., said ITAAs member companies have not had to press for a high H-1B visa cap because demand for the visas has been declining sharply—only 79,100 were issued in fiscal year 2002, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The ITAA is "just going to see the way things go," rather than push to keep the 195,000 level, Miller said.

Indeed, with the mounting political pressure, many industry watchers expect the ceiling to fall. But some experts say it will be a matter of closing the barn door after the horse has run away, since many jobs have already been shipped overseas.

"The door may have already closed, as far as H-1B visas go," said Rep. Ballenger. "More and more of our tech jobs, all the big banks and telecommunications companies, theyre hiring out jobs in India."

For Ballenger, the message from his constituents has been loud and clear—the fewer H-1B visas granted, the better. Ballengers district is home to a number of fiber-optic cable companies manufacturing facilities.

Companies including Alcatel, Corning Inc. and CommScope Inc. used to employ 17,000 people in North Carolina before the economy tanked; the number of jobs in that sector has since shrunk to between 4,000 and 5,000, Ballenger said, as unemployment in his district remains above 9 percent.

Offshore outsourcing has also contributed to the ITAAs disinterest when it comes to lobbying for a higher ceiling.

"Offshore is the challenge, not H-1Bs," Miller said. "Its more of a challenge to [have workers] be paid one-third or one-fourth of what U.S. workers are being paid than have [companies] saying, Bring workers here."

Senior Writer Lisa Vaas can be reached at lisa_vaas@ziffdavis.com.