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Immigration advocates breathed a sigh of relief when new restrictions failed to pass Congress in 1996. But there is a recurring problem in America's immigration policy: not enough immigrants.

American-educated foreigners who get H1-B visas are able to work in this country for as long as six years. Under this program, companies can sponsor foreign professional workers to fill jobs for which Americans are in short supply. In recent years, firms in such industries as aeronautics, automobile manufacturing, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and computers have used the H1-B program to hire foreign graduates of America's most prestigious science and technology programs.

The annual quota of 65,000 H1-B visas was filled on August 29 of last year, a full month before the fiscal year ended. (See "Limits to Growth," Citings, November 1997.) The continually expanding economy may cause this year's cap to be reached as early as May, leaving firms unable to bring on any new employees during the traditionally active summer hiring season.

Congress may keep the high-tech hiring halls open. Senate Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) is offering relief with his American Competitiveness Act, which would increase the annual visa quota to approximately 90,000. And to address concerns that the United States can't produce its own talent, the bill would create 20,000 new math, engineering, and computer-science scholarships for low-income students, throw another $10 million at job training programs, and increase the penalties for companies that violate the program's regulations. Abraham's bill was expected to pass his committee in April.

In the House, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the immigration subcommittee, planned to introduce a bill to increase the cap.