WASHINGTON (AP) -- Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates urged the Bush administration and lawmakers Wednesday to abolish immigration limits on foreign engineers who can be hired by U.S. companies, a sensitive subject among American technology workers watching their own jobs increasingly move overseas.
During an infrequent visit to lobby personally 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 "H1-B" visas aimed at drawing engineers, scientists, architects and doctors to the United States.
"The whole idea of the H1-B visa thing is, don't let too many smart people come into the country," Gates said during an invitation-only panel discussion at the Library of Congress. "The thing basically doesn't make sense."
Responding to a question about policy changes Gates would make if he were king, Gates said he "probably will get myself in trouble on this one." He endorsed more intensive study of nuclear power, improvements to U.S. schools and higher research spending by government.
"I'd certainly get rid of the H1-B visa cap," Gates 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, but Gates hasn't previously campaigned to abolish the immigration law entirely. Technology executives have argued they are unable to find qualified American workers, a contention disputed by U.S. labor groups and unemployed computer engineers.
"Anybody who's got good computer science training, they are not out there unemployed," Gates said. "We're just not seeing an available labor pool."
The Commerce Department undersecretary for technology, Phil Bond, cautioned Gates during his talk that unemployment among U.S. computer engineers regularly exceeds unemployment in other industries. "The politics of that are real," Bond said. Government figures showed 5.7 percent of information technology employees were out of work last year versus 5.5 percent of all workers.
The debate over U.S. technology companies hiring more foreigners occurs in the wake of the 2001 terrorism crackdown on immigration and amid increasing concerns about the theft of U.S. corporate secrets. The Bush administration has set up a counterintelligence office and published a first-ever strategy for preventing espionage against U.S. companies and the government.
"We still have to focus on border security," Rep. David Dreier, R-California, told Gates at his talk. "We can't be so naive as to believe there is not a very serious border security problem with which we have to contend."
Some labor groups criticized Gates' remarks.
"It's increasingly difficult for U.S.-based programmers to find work," said Marcus Courtney, organizer of the Seattle-based Washington Alliance of Technology Workers. "There is no support in the American public for completely abolishing the H1-B visa program and allowing companies to import foreign labor for these high-paying jobs." source