WASHINGTON -- Both houses of Congress on Tuesday approved a major expansion of the program that imports skilled foreign workers, responding to pleas for relief from what high-technology companies describe as an acute labor shortage.
President Clinton is expected to sign the bill.
The legislation would allow as many as 195,000 skilled foreign workers to enter the United States annually for the next three years and work under the "H-1B" visa program. The limit for such visas had been 115,000 in the fiscal year that ended Saturday; without legislative action, that annual quota would drop in fiscal 2001 and ensuing years.
Still awaiting congressional action -- and facing an uncertain fate -- are other immigration measures being pushed by Latino activists.
The Senate vote on the H-1B visa bill was 96-1; the House approved it a few hours later on a voice vote. The overwhelming support showed the emerging political muscle of fast-growing industries in the New Economy that both major political parties are courting in this presidential election year.
The H-1B program has grown rapidly in the past decade as demand for skilled labor has exploded in Silicon Valley and other high-tech job centers. This year's quota ran out in March. Business leaders, who had won a previous expansion as recently as 1998, made H-1B legislation a top goal this fall.
High-tech lobbyists patrolling Capitol Hill were all smiles following the Senate's vote. They handed out sheaves of statements from companies such as Microsoft Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. hailing the action.
But the vote followed a bruising partisan fight over other, unrelated immigration concerns that Latino groups say are crucial to some of the least powerful people in America: those in jeopardy of deportation.
Democrats said the Senate's GOP leadership spurned the Latino community by refusing to let the H-1B visa bill include measures to help hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals from Latin America and the Caribbean become permanent residents.
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