Hiring Foreign Tech Workers

In granting visas, Congress bowed to high-tech money

The booming American high-tech industry, eager to fill jobs with workers it apparently cannot seem to find within US borders, will have its wishes granted again on Capitol Hill this week.

Congress is finishing up a bill that will grant H1-B visas to some 200,000 high-tech workers from overseas for the next three years. That's in addition to the existing half-million such workers already in the country. President Clinton apparently has given his support to the measure.

Such generosity to one industry - albeit one driving the economy - is thanks largely to its increasing political clout. The industry gives campaign contributions to Democrats and Republicans in roughly equal amounts. The total will exceed $22 million this year, more than double the $8.9 million of four years ago.

Also, Congress seems to have given up on the idea that low-tech American workers can quickly be taught how to make computer chips, write software, and perform other high-tech tasks.

There are problems here. First, the bill is typical of the piecemeal approach to the larger issue of controls on immigration, both legal and illegal.

Second, the quick passage of an H1-B bill in a crowded congressional calendar is being done without providing resources to retrain American workers or to encourage and recruit students into science and engineering.

Critics were ignored in their charge that high-tech firms are not lacking for rsums, but may only be short of younger workers willing to work for less money and longer hours.

Any evidence to that effect was overridden by the assumption that the US companies need more foreign, low-wage workers to remain globally competitive. Congress also worried that many of the firms might just flee to low-wage countries.

The industry claims it needs workers from India, China, and elsewhere who now earn up to 15 times less at similar high-tech jobs in their native countries. It also foresees a vacancy of 850,000 jobs in the years ahead.

Issues outstanding

Some politicians tried to further tangle up the HB-1 legislation by asking to bring up other immigration causes.

A few Democrats wanted to appease Hispanics who claim there is a double-standard in granting visas to high-tech workers while denying them to illegal immigrants already in the US.

Some on the GOP side, meanwhile, wanted to make sure H1-B foreign professionals didn't directly take jobs away from American workers or force a lowering of salaries.

One big issue the bill neglects is how to provide additional government services to this massive wave of high-tech immigrants.

Nor does it beef up government monitoring of these "temporary" workers - many of whom will likely find a way to stay illegally in the US after their visas expire.

It's disappointing that the bill has no sensible safeguards to protect American workers, such as a requirement that the companies pay a minimum of $40,000 a year to the foreign workers.

And it's disappointing, too, that the Clinton administration, which often claims to be on the side of the American worker, has not seen fit to put modest regulations into effect that went along with the first passage of H1-B visas six years ago. One necessary rule is that high-tech firms make a good-faith effort to advertise for US workers before they hire from abroad.

A few recommendations

A recent report on the H1-B issue by the General Accounting Office calls government efforts to date in question. The GAO says the H1-B program is open to abuse by companies for two reasons: (1) the Labor Department has limited legal authority to enforce the program and (2) weaknesses in enforcement by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The report goes on to offer worthy recommendations. They include:

That many companies in California's Silicon Valley be encouraged to move elsewhere in order to find more and less expensive workers. (Salaries in that high-tech corridor need to be three times the national average to keep up with housing prices.)

An income-tax credit that encourages employment in high-tech fields.

As the world continues its march toward a global economy, a freer exchange of workers among countries is required.

But let's hope the H1-B visa issue can be framed in a large scope of other immigration issues and a proper reeducation of American workers.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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