“It’s an enormous issue for us. We depend tremendously on workers under H1-B visas to fill a lot of the research jobs at higher levels in biotech companies … “
Impending Bill Seeks to Increase H1-B Visa Cap as Biotech Applicants Continue Growing
Biotechnology industry leaders nationwide will be closely monitoring the progress of an immigration bill that is set to begin deliberations in the US Senate this week because it will affect their ability to hire professionals from overseas.
The bill, which would raise to 115,000 from 65,000 the number of individuals eligible for H1-B visas during a US fiscal year, is particularly important in California, where biotech companies rely more on foreign-born workers than any other state.
The bill would also seek to draw more foreign-born tech workers to the US by creating a new point system for awarding green cards. The system would be weighted toward education and skills, rather than the presence of family members already in the US.
Lastly, it would raise the number of available visas if the application cap is reached early. Specifics were not yet finalized because the bill has not been written, a top proponent of H1-B reform said.
President Bush and a bipartisan group of 20 senators returned the issue of immigration control to the front burner May 17 after agreeing to certain potential components of the bill during several weeks of closed-door talks that bypassed the process of hearings and debates typical of legislation.
It is uncertain at best whether the bill will make it to the White House. The measure will need support from 60 or more Senators, enough to withstand an expected filibuster in the Senate. And even if the bill clears the Senate, as an immigration measure did last year, approval by the House of Representatives will also be needed; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she would move the bill through her chamber if Bush could guarantee that 70 Republicans would vote for it, a prospect that was uncertain at deadline.
Also not clear is whether such a bill will make a difference. “The jury’s still out over whether or not it will really be effective,” said Robert Hoffman, vice chair of Compete America, a coalition of businesses, research institutions, and trade groups that has sought to raise the number of foreign-born workers allowed in the US. “Are there enough green cards to back up this new system? If you have a point system built on top of a scarce supply of green cards, you’ll have an even bigger problem” – namely, longer waits for green cards.
“We’re not quite sure whether or not this bill really fully advances our highly skilled worker agenda and, more important, our innovation agenda,” said Hoffman, who is also vice president for government and public affairs at Oracle, one of 33 entities listed as members on Compete America’s Web site.
To be sure, life sciences leaders have generally been less vocal than their information-technology and software-industry counterparts about the Hi-B issue, according to Daniel Andrade, director of the international office of the nonprofit Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif.
“We may not be a big piece of the pie as far as 95 percent [of visa recipients] going to Bill Gates and Intel and Hewlett-Packard and those guys,” he said. “But most PhD researchers that come to the US come to academic institutes initially, which means they can get Hs and Js [two classes of visas] any time they want.”
“When they’re done with their post-[doctorate studies], the natural progression is either academia or industry,” Andrade said. “Well, zero percent can go to industry when there are no H1-Bs. And because the cap [will likely be] met the first day, the issue is, ‘Is Microsoft in a better position to know who they’re going to hire for October 1st? Or does a biotech that is hiring a handful of H1-Bs know who they’re going to be hiring October 1st?’”
He was referring to the fact that on April 1, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services received 150,000 applications for visas on the first day of eligibility — the fastest amount of time that number of applications was reached.
Moreover, companies of Microsoft’s size are likely more familiar than biotechs with the H1-B process and have more resources to reach their goals.
“People in biotechs don’t think six months in advance for jobs,” Andrade said. “A project comes up, they start to look for people: ‘Hey, we have a project starting for molecular biology. We need somebody tomorrow.’ [Biotechs] can’t get those people.”
Also, nonprofits like Salk cannot refer their H1-B hires to biotechs if their visas allow only academic study in the US, leaving employees with three options: Remain at the nonprofit, find work with another academic center not subject to the visa cap, or return home, Andrade said. “They can’t go anywhere other than academics or a nonprofit research facility.”
It is not known how many H1-B visa recipients currently work in the biotech industry, but the number is presumed to have grown in recent years. In an April 2000 preliminary report delivered to life sciences industry association BIOCOM, A. Stephen Dahms, then the executive director of the California State University Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology, said between 14,000 and 17,000 US biotech workers were visa holders. That year, the nation’s biotech industry had 162,000 employees, according to Biotechnology Industry Organization statistics cited by the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.
Two years later, Dahms and E. Dale Servier published a study in Nature estimating that 18,000 individuals working in the US biotech industry were H1-B recipients. In the report, Dahms and Stephen Trow of the Washington, DC, law firm Trow & Rahal, said that by 2005 the demand in the biotech industry for H1-B visa recipients would grow between 3,500 and 5,000 annually.
Speaking to BioRegion News this week,Dahms said US policy on H1-B has remained unchanged since his study began.
“Nothing was done after 2002 simply because of the implications of 9/11 and the lack of willingness of Congress and anybody else to listen to foreign-worker needs,” said Dahms, who in 2006 became president and CEO of the Alfred E. Mann Foundation for Biomedical Engineering in Santa Clarita, Calif.
Andrade said the Salk Institute is among several institutions helping the National Postdoctoral Association study the visa issue. The association is expected to issue a white paper report later this month or in June.
California-based life sciences companies generally rely more on foreign-born workers than other states, according to a BioRegion News review of the Foreign Labor Certification database maintained by the US Department of Labor.
During the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2006, the most recent year available, many California-based biotech companies increased the number of H1-B visa applications (see details below). While the database does not tally applicants by type of business, it does show California accounted for 70,008 visa applications, the most of any state – and accounting by itself for more applications than available visas. New York was second with 43,215 applications, followed by New Jersey with 30,733, Texas with 29,711 and Illinois with 20,213.
“It’s an enormous issue for us. We depend tremendously on workers under H1-B visas to fill a lot of the research jobs at higher levels in biotech companies in San Diego,” said Joseph Panetta, president and CEO of BIOCOM.
For years, Panetta said, BIOCOM has sought to persuade Congress to increase the availability of H1-B visas.
“After 9/11, that became tremendously more difficult. We’re finding that we don’t have the number of H1-B visa applicants, and scientists, and even managers to some extent coming to San Diego,” Panetta added. “H1-B visas were a great way for us to get people in at least temporarily to work in our companies.”
He said biotech companies seeking H1-B workers have seen another obstacle emerge in the past couple of years — the appeal to those workers of biotech sectors in China, India, and Singapore.
“What’s becoming more the norm is they want to go back and work in these companies being created in their home countries,” Panetta said. “We see [H1-B] as more of a short-term solution and what we’re becoming more and more focused on is working with the labor department to develop the programs to train people here and to get kids more interested in math and science so that we don’t have to be as dependent on the H1-B visas.”
Not all CEOs appear to share that view. “In the biotech sector, I have not heard anybody complain about” the H1-B visa cap, said Ivor Royston, a founding managing partner of Forward Ventures in San Diego. “I don’t think it is an acute problem as it is for the IT sector.”
Legislators are also criticizing the Bush-Senate bill. “The agreement reached [May 17] is a start, but more needs to be done,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), assistant majority leader and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on immigration, in a written statement. “I will work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to improve this bill. Hopefully those efforts will result in legislation that we can all support.”
“Supporters claim the goal of the H-1B program is to help the American economy by allowing US companies to hire needed foreign workers. The reality is that too many H1-B visas are being used to facilitate the outsourcing of American jobs to other countries,” Durbin said in a May 14 statement with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) announcing they had sent letters to the top nine overseas-based applicants seeking H1-B visas for American-based workers asking them to answer by May 29 a set of 16 questions about their requests. None were biotech companies, but all accounted for a combined 20,000 of the visas issued last fiscal year.
H1-B visa caps have fluctuated over the past decade. With the dot-com boom in full swing, the number rose from 65,000 to 115,000 in fiscal 1999, then up again to 195,000 in FY 2001, with a provision that the cap would revert to 65,000 in FY 2005. That year, it took 12 months to apply for all the available visas. That span shrunk to nine months in 2004, six months in 2005, and two months last year.
“We’re talking about people who are some of the most highly educated and highly innovative people who are already contributing to our economy, and they’re stuck in a legal limbo in H1-B status. They deserve better,” Compete America’s Hoffman said. “But they can only get that if we have enough visas to eliminate the backlog and, more importantly, to prevent a future backlog because of the increase in H1-B visa [applications] that we’re likely to see.”
During the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2006, the most recent year available, many California-based biotech companies increased the number of H1-B visa applications, according to a BioRegion News review of the Foreign Labor Certification database maintained by the US Department of Labor.