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The vanishing American computer programmer

Move to increase number of foreign worker visas fails in Senate, but that has not stopped what critics call a push for cheaper labor.

By David R. FrancisColumnist / July 2, 2007



A popular video recently posted on the Internet's YouTube shows an immigration lawyer talking to a group of business people in May about the process of hiring foreigners for their companies.

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"Our goal is clearly not to find a qualified US worker," says the attorney in the video, an immigration lawyer at Cohen & Grigsby, a firm in Pittsburgh. "In a sense, that sounds funny, but it's what we're trying to do here."

To Norm Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis, such efforts to use loopholes in immigration laws that were supposed to give Americans and legal residents first crack at high-tech and other jobs is "absolutely outrageous."

The real goal is to hire "cheap labor," charges Dr. Matloff. High-tech executives had backed a provision in the comprehensive immigration bill that failed in the Senate last Thursday to boost the number of H-1B or other temporary visas for highly educated foreign workers. Now, the focus will shift to "stand-alone" bills already before Congress that would accomplish the same goal, notes a spokesman for the Software & Information Industry Association.

Bill Gates, a Microsoft founder, has even called for unlimited H-1B visas. (The current theoretical limit is 65,000.)

Supporters of the measure say the visas are necessary to fill positions because of a shortage of Americans skilled in computer or other sciences. Matloff rejects those arguments and has been fighting to preserve computer jobs for native-born Americans and his students for years.

"There is nothing new in this video," he says. He recalls getting a document years ago in which a proponent of H-1B visas referred to the arsenal of tools companies can use to legally reject any American applicant for a job in favor of a foreign worker. But now that those tactics are on video, "everything changes," Matloff says. Viewers can see and hear with their own eyes and ears the words of this immigration lawyer and "his utter lack of scruples."

The video was lifted from the law firm's website and put on YouTube by the Programmers Guild, a nonprofit group with 1,500 members, most of them older than 40, and many of whom can't find jobs in their areas of expertise.

To a degree, the Internet has changed the balance of power in a dispute between employees and employers and thus, perhaps, changed the balance of power in Washington's political arena. That's particularly true when a group of sophisticated computer experts use their expertise in a public policy fight.

To Matloff, the H-1B dispute is an example of how ruthless some businesses have become in their effort to get what they want from Congress. The computer industry insists that it must be able to import highly skilled foreign workers to handle programming and other work. Without those workers, firms would have to move those jobs to India, China, or other countries where labor is cheap in order to remain competitive.

John Miano, who runs his own programming firm, says such offshoring is "the latest fad." He notes that nearly all the world's software was developed in the United States. American culture makes programmers here efficient and innovative, he says, and offshoring over the past decade hasn't saved US firms any money.

In addition, claims by high-tech firms that they pay prevailing wages to H-1Bworkers are false, Mr. Miano says. In fact, their pay is about $12,000 a year less than American citizens would get for the same job, according to a new study by Miano for the Center for Immigration Studies, in Washington, D.C.

Proponents of more H-1Bs also say there is a shortage of computer professionals in the US, reflected in an unemployment rate of a mere 2.4 percent. But Miano says wages in the computer industry have been stagnant after inflation for 10 years, hardly a sign of a labor shortage. Moreover, the low unemployment rate reflects the fact that programmers and others have left the industry in droves, unable to find work, often after training H-1B replacements. Several computer companies have laid off thousands of workers, while at the same time complaining of shortages.

A new study by the National Venture Capital Association finds that 1 in 4 US public firms backed by venture capital and created in the past 15 years were founded by immigrants. Most of those immigrants, however, were not in the country on H-1B visas, Matloff says. Many were among several American co-founders. Considering the high proportion of foreign-born Americans in the US today, the role of foreign founders is not disproportionately high, he notes.

While the H-1B issue remains on the legislative counter, the US is losing considerable computer capabilities, Matloff maintains. At his school, the number of computer-science students has fallen by 50 percent since its peak in the 1990s. American computer programmers are an endangered species in the US, he says, as similar situations exist at other universities.

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