Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on Wednesday announced her plan to reform a visa program for short-term, high-tech workers.
Addressing a group of 40 optics-industry leaders and employees at Breault Research Organization Inc., the Arizona Democrat said there aren't enough visas available to help high-tech companies quickly fill vacancies for skilled workers.
The 65,000 available H-1B visas this year were all taken the first day applications were accepted, she said.
"We're capping our ability to lead worldwide" in the high-tech industries, Giffords said.
Her plan has three main components:
• Increase the number of available H-1B visas to 130,000 and up to 180,000 later. She chose those caps because they are "palatable" for most lawmakers, she said.
• Remove the cap for certain categories of workers: those who have a master's or doctoral degree from a university in the U.S. in science, math, engineering or technology who also have a job offer in hand when applying for a visa. This component allows the market to determine the number of visas needed, Giffords said.
• Allow up to 20,000 foreign graduates in those fields who have job offers.
More than half of engineering doctorates from U.S. colleges are awarded to foreign nationals who return to their countries after graduation, often because they can't secure a visa to work here, Giffords said.
Bob Breault, chairman of Breault Research, said he has hired H-1B workers in the past, but he didn't apply this year because "there wasn't a prayer" to get one of the 65,000 available. He said that number is arbitrary, called the visa rules nonsensical and said he backs Giffords' plan.
High-tech companies in Arizona added 800 jobs last year, for a total of 111,600 jobs statewide, Giffords said.
"These are good-paying jobs," she said.
Giffords said it is a misconception that H-1B visas take jobs away from American workers.
"Most of these jobs can't be filled," she said. "It's really a brewing crisis."
Breault said he has had five positions vacant for five months because there aren't enough workers to go around, so companies are "competing for brainpower."
Giffords said the America Competes Act, signed into law in August, provides funding to better educate more American students in science, math, technology and engineering. That will increase the local labor pool for high-tech employees in the long term, she said.
Giffords said she will gather feedback from employers and introduce a visa reform bill before the new year.