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Obama appointee sperling was key H-1B broker

Patrick Thibodeau | Jan. 11, 2011
In the history of the H-1B visa program, few have played a role as important as that of Gene Sperling, who last week was appointed by President Obama to head the National Economic Council.

Late last year, Congress imposed an additional $2,000 H-1B fee on offshore companies to discourage visa use. But Morrison said he doubted the fee will change the economics of offshoring. Instead, it has created "a pay to play" system, he noted, adding, "I'm not sure that's such a good idea."

Sperling's role in the offshore issue and the H-1B visa remain to be seen.

Harris Miller, who was the longtime head of the Information Technology Association of America, which has since been renamed TechAmerica, was involved in the meeting with Sperling in the late 1990s when the H-1B issue was being hashed out.

Miller said Sperling's role was to figure out whether there was a workable solution to the visa cap that wouldn't undercut what Miller characterized as the U.S. Labor Department's "ideological opposition to the H-1B program" and still keep the tech industry happy.

Miller recalls Sperling as being somewhat skeptical but willing to look at the issue in a more balanced perspective and take in the views of all parties. While he wasn't rejecting the Labor Department's advice "that somehow these H-1Bs were undercutting the U.S. labor market," he wasn't willing to buy into their rhetoric, Miller said.

"Generally, his reputation as a pragmatist -- as someone trying to look at the big picture -- held true in that conversation," Miller said.

The Clinton administration asked Congress to add fees to the H-1B visa to help pay for retraining of IT workers, but the White House didn't get everything it wanted, including a requirement that as many as 40% to 50% of the visas be set aside for people with master's degrees or above. It had also sought a cap of 200,000 visas , a figure that was later reduced to 195,000. But soon after the 2000 cap-increase law was passed, the dot-com bubble burst and with it fell demand for H-1B visas.

Carl Shusterman, a Los Angeles-based immigration lawyer, said the compromises that the White House and Congress made on the H-1B program have been to the visa's detriment.

"This law is more larded up with fees, regulations and hoops that employers have to jump through than probably all the other temporary visas put together," he said.With some 10,000 visas still remaining before petitioning begins April 1 for the next fiscal year's allotment, Shusterman said he didn't see pressure on the Obama administration to address the visa issue. "I don't think that's in the works," he said.


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