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Gates Wants End to H1B Visa Limit (H1B cap)

WASHINGTON Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates urged the Bush administration and lawmakers Wednesday to increase the immigration limits for foreign workers who can be hired by US companies on the H1B visa program. The current limit (cap) for H1B visas is 65,000 per year.

During an infrequent visit to lobby for changes in federal policy, the world's richest executive said the government should eliminate the limit of 65,000 for overseas workers who can be hired each year by American firms under specialty H1B visas aimed at drawing engineers, scientists, architects and doctors to the United States.

Responding to a question about policy changes Gates would make if he were king, he said "I'd certainly get rid of the H1B visa cap," and then added "That's one of the easiest decisions."

Gates and other leading technology executives have pressed Congress aggressively to let them hire more foreign employees by raising visa limits. Gates and Richard Rashid, senior vice president for Microsoft Research, both complained that the company cannot find enough qualified computer science applicants, and that the H1B visa limit, which now stands at 65,000 workers per year, has hurt their ability to attract top IT workers.

The US education system is producing fewer math and science graduates than countries like India and China, and top IT workers in those countries and others are more often opting to stay home instead of work at a US company, Gates said.

Gates found little argument to his H1B stance at the forum, which included two US lawmakers and a university president. Phillip Bond, undersecretary for technology at the US Department of Commerce, noted that the H1B debate is complicated because US engineers currently have a larger unemployment rate than the rest of the US population.

Bond suggested that companies like Microsoft see more visas as a way to recruit cutting-edge talent, but there are IT workers in the US looking for work.

Gates doesn't encounter a lot of unemployed IT workers, he said. "I think there must be a categorization problem," Gates added. "Anybody who's got some computer science skills is not looking for work."

Some on the panel blamed strict US immigration policies following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for a lack of available IT workers, with Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman saying US universities experienced a 25 percent decline in graduate applications from overseas two years ago and another 5 percent decline this past year.

Dramatic changes are needed in primary and secondary education, Gates said. But he said he wasn't sure what he could do to fix education because states and local school districts control schools more than the federal government does.

Gates and other panelists also called for the US government to increase its spending on research and development. Bond noted that government spending on research and development has increased in the past five years during the administration of President George Bush, and funding for National Science Foundation has increased 26 percent since 2001.

Most on the panel said they are confident that the US can continue to be the leading technology innovator, but other countries will continue to become more competitive. Asian countries are trying to copy the US higher education system, giving their students home-grown opportunities, Bond said.

"India and China and others are becoming competitive," Bond said. "The United States has this in common with Microsoft: When you're number one, everybody is gunning for you."

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