US House okays bill to hike visa fees

WASHINGTON: Amid protests from India, the US House of Representatives has passed a bill to steeply hike US visa fees for skilled workers to raise $600 million in emergency funding to help secure the US-Mexico border.

Senators passed a similar plan last week. But since the House version passed in a voice vote on Tuesday is slightly different it will go back to the Senate for final congressional approval before being signed into law by President Barack Obama.

The measure proposes to raise the fees on H-1B visas for companies who have more than 50 per cent of their employees on such visas for highly skilled professionals from $320 to $2,320. Similarly the fee on L-1 visas given to multi-national transferees from $320 to $2,570.

The additional fees from the popular H-1B and L-1 visas programmes would be used to build operating bases and deploy unmanned surveillance drones to better secure the US-Mexico border, one of the rare issues both Democrats and Republicans have agreed on.

The legislation targets companies that lawmakers say "exploit" US visa programmes. A summary of the Senate version listed Wipro, Tata, Infosys and Satyam as such firms, saying that they fly thousands of employees to the US to work at as technicians and engineers for their clients.

In a letter to US trade representative Ron Kirk, India’s commerce minister Anand Sharma said the bill unfairly targets Indian companies and estimated it would cost the country’s firms an extra $200 million a year.

"It is inexplicable to our companies to bear the cost of such a highly discriminatory law," Sharma wrote. New Delhi argues the bill is discriminatory because it will primarily impact Indian firms even though they account for fewer than 12 percent of the total visas issued.

US companies, such as Microsoft, use these visas in larger numbers but would escape the hike as it targets only compnies with more than 50 percent of employees on H1B or L-1 visas.

Democrat Charles Schumer sparked protests in India when during a Senate debate last Thursday he called Indian IT major Infosys a "chop shop"-the term often used for the place where stolen cars are dismantled for resale.

He said such companies outsource high-paying American tech jobs to immigrants willing to take less pay. He said he did not want the bill to affect companies that employ Americans and "play by the rules."

Unveiled 90 days ahead of the key November mid-term elections, it seeks to add another 1,500 agents and put in place greater number of unmanned aerial vehicles that scan the border for undocumented immigrants or illegal drug runners.

The bill, introduced by Schumer and fellow Democrtat Claire McCaskill, would also pay for building forward operating bases along the border and $14 million in new communications equipment.(IANS)


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