President George W. Bush, who is touring the country as part of a weeks-long campaign to promote his 2006 agenda, called on Congress yesterday to raise the number of visas that allow companies to fill high-tech jobs with foreign workers.

“The problem is. . . that Congress has limited the number of H-1B visas,” Mr Bush said, referring to the name of the official passport endorsement. “I think it’s a mistake not to encourage more really bright folks who can fill the jobs that are having trouble being filled in America, to limit their number. So I call upon Congress to be realistic and reasonable to raise that cap.”

The H-1B visa, which allows US employers to have access to highly educated foreign professionals, many of whom work in scientific research, medicine and technology, has been a point of contention between business and government over the past two years. High-tech industries battling talent shortages blame the visa programme’s low cap on approved new workers.

In 1990 – the year it took effect – the cap was set at 65,000. That number was progressively raised by Congress during the technology boom and hit an all-time high for fiscal years 2001 through to 2003, at 195,000. In 2004, however, the cap dropped back to 65,000 and has stayed there since.

“It’s clear we don’t have enough workers with math and science degrees and in a workforce of 140m a cap of 65,000 is way too low,” said Randy Johnson, the vice-president for labour, immigration and employee benefits at the US Chamber of Commerce. “The cap has filled almost immediately over the past two years.”

Sandra Boyd, at the National Association of Manufacturers, the industry body, said that reforms to both the H-1B visa and green card programmes were key to helping US employers maintain their ability to create jobs in the US.

But Richard Elmore, a senior research fellow at the consortium for policy research in education at Harvard University, said the proposed change was little more than a “stop-gap ­measure”.

“I don’t have anything against inviting people in but it doesn’t address the main problem and that is the fairly major underinvestment in education in this country,” he said. “We haven’t built the talent pool.”

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