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U.S. senators question several companies about visa program for high-tech workers

WASHINGTON (AP) – Two U.S. senators are questioning several companies about their use of a visa program for highly skilled workers.

Sens. Chuck Grassley, a Republican, and Dick Durbin, a Democrat, said they are focusing on nine companies, several of them India-based, that used nearly 20,000 of the 75,000 H-1B visas that were available last year.

H-1B visas are for high-skilled workers and are heavily used in the high-tech industry.

”I continue to hear how people want to increase the number of H-1B visas that are available to companies,” Grassley said in a news release. ”Considering the high amount of fraud and abuse in the visa program, we need to take a good, hard look at the employers who are using H-1B visas and how they are using them.”

Grassley and Durbin, both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee, sent letters to the nine companies asking several questions about their visa use, wages and layoffs.

The top users were identified with statistics from Citizenship and Immigration Services, the senators said.

The letters, posted on Grassley’s Web site, were addressed to five companies in India and four in the United States.

Under federal law, 65,000 H-1B visas are available each year for workers in specialty fields such as computer programmers, engineers, architects, accountants, doctors, college professors and fashion models.

Another 20,000 visas are available for foreign workers with at least a master’s degree from a U.S. college or university. The numbers do not include current H-1B visa holders. Federal law sets requirements for H-1B holders’ salaries.

The high-tech industry has long complained that too few visas are available. Microsoft Corp. is among a group of companies that has pushed for increasing the available visas. This year, the limit for applications for the visas was reached in record time.

”Collecting information is fine, but we think abuse of the system is the exception rather than the rule,” said Eric Thomas, a spokesman for Compete America, a coalition that includes Microsoft, chip maker Intel Corp., business software company Oracle Corp. and others.

Increasing U.S. competitiveness by providing more visas for skilled workers has been a key issue in congressional efforts to craft a comprehensive immigration bill. At least two bills have been filed that would increase available H-1B visas to 115,000 a year.

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On the Net:

Sen. Chuck Grassley: http://grassley.seante.gov

Sen. Dick Durbin: http://durbin.senate.gov

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