US Congress votes to increase visa fees, not visa limits

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Thousands of India's skilled workers hoping for a career in the US may be disappointed. The House of Representatives has passed its version of the budget deficit reduction bill without any proposal to increase the annual cap of H-1B visas by 30,000 as suggested by the US Senate.

The Bill approved by the US Senate earlier this month had proposed an increase of 30,000 in the annual cap of 65,000 non-immigrant H-1B visas, reissuing of unused employment-based immigration visas, and increase in visa application fee, among other things.

The House of Representatives, which passed its version of the Bill on Nov. 18 by a 217 to 215 margin, on the other hand, remained silent on raising the H-1B visa cap. Instead, they introduced a proposal increasing the fee for the intra-company L-1 visa by $1,500.

The L-1 visa is a non-immigrant visa which allows companies operating both in the US and abroad to transfer certain classes of employees from its foreign operations to the US operations for up to seven years.

The fate of thousands of aspiring workers from abroad will now depend on the common bill which will have to be prepared before it can be sent to the US President for his sanction. The reconciliation process will witness in the coming weeks, intense lobbying by pro-immigration and anti-immigration groups with US lawmakers.

The original purpose of the current legislative exercise by the two arms of the Congress was to reduce budget deficit. The Congress had mandated a $300 million five-year saving target from 2006-2010, as part of its budget resolution for the 2006 fiscal. As part of meeting its deficit reduction target, the Senate went along with its Judiciary Committee recommendations that added some 90,000 employment based green cards and raised the fee by $500 netting the government some $250 million.

The Senate also went along with the other recommendation of increasing the cap on H-1B visas by 30,000 which would add another $75 millions by way of fee collection.

The Senate's version of the Bill also contained proposals to enable legal immigration to increase from 2,40,000 people a year on an annual basis.

The House of Representatives, however, did not increase the number of visas to bring additional revenues but proposed an increase in L-1 visa fee to $1,500.

Between now and the time the members iron out the differences, there will be tremendous activity privately by interested groups that will include those who are against having any increase for the H-1B visas on the grounds that they are being abused.

But there is a larger issue as well-- there are members in the House and Senate who do not wish to see any immigration or visa provisions tagged to this budget deficit cutting bill, rather they would like for changes come about in a separate bill next year.

"We don't expect there to be any immigration provisions in the reconciliation. This is not the time or place for controversial immigration provisions," Republican Congressman Lamar Smith from Texas recently said.