Atlanta companies may be able to hire more foreign professionals if a recent immigration reform proposal is approved by U.S. Congress to make available more specialty visas and green cards for foreign nationals to work in the United States, said Atlanta immigration attorney Robert Banta.

A proposal that was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee Oct. 20, if adopted by a full Congressional vote, would recapture some unused green card numbers from previous years and discontinue counting family members toward the U.S.’ annual quota for foreign employee green cards.

The proposal also calls for the recapture of some available numbers for H-1B visas from prior years, which would allow more foreign professionals to work in the U.S.

If passed by Congress, both measures would increase the number of foreign workers Georgia firms could legally hire.

“This was quite a fast response, actually. The business community has raised its voice dramatically in response to a situation that’s untenable, and Congress has, thus far, listened,” Mr. Banta, founder of Banta Immigration Law Ltd., told GlobalAtlanta.

“It’s a step. It’s still tinkering with an antiquated immigration system. But it’s a piece of legislation that’s needed to avoid disaster in terms of global employment markets for this country,” he said. “We’ll keep working toward a better situation, but this is a step in the right direction.”

Mr. Banta explained that the proposal would give companies more opportunity to apply for green cards for their employees. Under the new legislation, family members of foreign employees would not be counted toward the 140,000 annual cap on employee-sponsored green cards. Rather, only the actual employees would be deducted from the quota, and more green cards would be available for workers.

This proposal is in response to an enormous retrogression in the green card quota, he said.

“If you are lucky enough to have a pending application, it’ll drag on for several more years. Otherwise, you can’t file now, and in the worst case, you may have to leave the country if your current visa runs out, depending on what visa you hold,” he said.

He explained that for many years, the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services have been slow in processing green card applications, so applicants have not been deducted from the quota, resulting in unused green card numbers.

In the last 12 months, the immigration service has reduced its backlogs, and the labor department has introduced a new system for faster processing of applications.

“This is all terrific,” Mr. Banta said, “except now the demand has far outstripped the supply,” with more companies stepping up to request green cards under the quota. “It was terrible to have the lengthy delays for processing applications, but with this new efficiency, the law doesn’t respond to the number of green cards needed.”

Under the proposal, H-1B visas that allow specially skilled foreign professionals to work in the U.S. would also come under review, Mr. Banta said.

The current annual cap on H-1B visas is 65,000, plus another 20,000 for foreign nationals who have advanced degrees from American universities. The 65,000 visas were already used up by mid-August, more than one month before the start of the fiscal year for which they are valid, Oct. 1 – Sept. 30, 2006. Of the special 20,000, some were not used. These and some additional visas that were left over for workers from Singapore and Chile that were set aside under special treaties would be made available.

The proposal would make available some H-1B visas that went unused in previous years, providing some relief, Mr. Banta said. For at least five years, an additional 30,000 H-1B visas per year from a pool of previously unused visas dating back to 1991 would be available, after the annual cap of 65,000 is reached. But these H-1B visas may still not be sufficient to satisfy the demand of U.S. companies, Mr. Banta said.

It also offers no provisions for employers to make legal their employees who are currently undocumented, Mr. Banta said. An employer who has no intention of violating the law but who needs personnel and wants to support an illegal individual has virtually no means of making that worker legal, he said.

The proposal is to go to the Senate Budget Committee and become part of an overall Senate budget reconciliation bill. If approved by the full Senate, the Senate and House of Representatives would meet in conference to reconcile their respective bills. The House and Senate would then vote on the final bill that comes out of conference.

Contact Mr. Banta at (404) 249-1200 for more information.