Mr. Bill Comes to Washington

Microsoft chairman returns to Capitol Hill to continue his campaign to expand the H1-B visa cap. 

Bill Gates makes one of his periodic Washington appearances this week to stump for his favorite Capitol Hill subjects: more H1-B visas, more public-private partnerships and more federal spending on math, science and technology.

The Microsoft chairman's two-day trip includes testifying before the U.S. House and Technology Committee March 12 and keynoting a sold out Northern Virginia Technology Council breakfast March 13.

Increased H1-B visas-specialized-occupation temporary worker visas-have topped the Washington technology policy agenda for several years. Gates and other tech leaders contend there are not enough qualified U.S. workers to fill their advance-degree positions.

Throughout the 1990s, Congress authorized almost 200,000 H1-B visas a year, but following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, lawmakers, citing national security concerns, slashed the number to fewer than 70,000 a year. While many members of Congress have endorsed the idea of increasing the H1-B cap, the issue is tied to the larger, politically sensitive topic of immigration reform, where Congress remains deadlocked.

In previous appearances in Washington, Gates has brushed that political reality aside.

"It makes no sense to tell well-trained, highly skilled individuals-many of whom are educated at our top universities-that they are not welcome here," Gates told a Senate panel last year. "We have to welcome the great minds in this world, not shut them out of our country."

Two years earlier, at an appearance before a Library of Congress conference, Gates said, "I'd certainly get rid of the H1-B cap ... The whole idea of the H1-B thing is don't let too many smart people come into the country. Basically, it doesn't make sense."

Gates also preaches that if America doesn't make it easier for foreign scientists and engineers to obtain permanent U.S. residency, the global tech talent will flow to India and China. Currently, obtaining a U.S. green card can take up to five years.

"So, we'll have Canadians waiting at the border [for more H1-B visas or green cards] until some bureaucratic thing happens where a few more get opened up," Gates told the Library Congress in 2005. "That's just wounding us in this global competition."

As it always does, Congress listens politely to Gates, giving him fawning compliments for his achievements, but ignoring his policy recommendations. Perhaps lawmakers will listen a little closer this time around: Just months after Gates spoke last year on the need for more H1-B visas and Congress didn't respond, Microsoft announced it was opening a new software development center in Vancouver, Canada.

Conventional wisdom held that the new Democratically-controlled Congress would be more sympathetic to the tech industry's concerns over H1-B visas. Yet before the 2007 immigration reform bill went down in flames in the Senate, lawmakers voted to increase the fees on H1-B visas while not raising the cap.

"What many of us have come to understand is that these H-1B visas are not being used to supplement the American work force where we have shortages. But, rather, H1-B visas are being used to replace American workers with lower-cost foreign workers," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said in his May 25 floor comments.

According to Gates, the core of the problem rests with members in Congress who want to step back to U.S. isolationism.

"It's very dangerous because you get this reaction: 'Okay, the world is very competitive, let's cut back on trade; the world is very scary, let's cut back on visas,'" he said in his last appearance in Washington.