Widen the door for skilled foreigners

Big business and the high-tech industry are clamoring for another near-doubling of the annual quota of H-1B visas, which allow skilled foreigners to live and work in the United States for up to six years. The US needs skilled foreigners, but this is the wrong way to get them here.

Just over a year ago, Congress almost doubled the H-1B quota to 115,000, at industry's behest. But that quota was filled before the end of the fiscal year, as happened the year before. Now industry wants to raise the permanent quota to 200,000 annually.

Some claim that getting more foreign workers is the solution to a tight labor market. The Wall Street Journal said in a Sept. 20 editorial: "If one thing would ease the minds of Fed governors as they contemplate tight labor markets, it would be greater freedom for US companies to import skilled immigrants from abroad." But the Journal got it wrong.

We need an immigration system that gives preference to skilled, educated immigrants - admitting them as permanent residents (and hopefully future citizens). H-1B visas were created in 1990. This is a nonimmigrant visa category, similar to student or tourist visas. H-1B visa holders are admitted for three years, and the visa may be renewed for three more years. They are also bound to the employer who sponsored them. In other words, H-1Bs cannot take a job offer from a different employer. Such ties that bind certainly benefit the sponsoring employer, who keeps hold of the employee in a hot market.

But the economic effects of this arrangement are not pretty. Importing nonimmigrant foreign workers floods the labor market in certain fields. A flooded labor market suppresses wage gains. And native workers find themselves with fewer job prospects because of discriminatory hiring practices or artificially low wages.

The facts indicate that the asserted shortage of skilled workers is overstated. Norman Matloff, a professor at University of California at Davis, says the high-tech industry - which claims to have 350,000 computer job openings nationwide - hires only about 2 percent of applicants for programming positions. Only about one-fifth of interviewees receive offers. It's telling that salaries are rising only 7 to 8 percent a year in tech fields in which H-1Bs are popular.

Computer-science enrollment has risen sharply since 1994, and more than doubled in the past three years. Science and engineering doctorates are being awarded in record numbers. The picture is distorted by tech employers insisting on very narrow qualifications, such as knowledge of the latest programming language (which becomes obsolete quickly). Thus, qualified middle-aged programmers and new computer grads alike cannot secure jobs they could do, if given the chance.

Aside from the problems with H-1B, our permanent immigration system is biased toward people with a family member here. Roughly two-thirds of the nearly 1 million legal immigrants each year enter via family ties (even distant ones). No consideration is given to whether they possess the tools of success in America: education, English proficiency, job skills - which help narrow the wage gap between natives and immigrants. Yet, ever since we adopted the current immigration system in 1965, the job skills and economic performance of immigrants compared to natives has dropped. Today, the average male immigrant earns 23 percent less than the average male native; in 1960, immigrant men on average earned 4 percent more than native men.

The solution is to change our immigration system so it takes into account education level, English proficiency, possession of needed occupational skills, literacy, and lastly, having a close relative already here. And H-1B visas should be eliminated. We should set a goal of admitting immigrants who have what it takes to succeed in America. Having a wide differential between the newest arrivals and native-born Americans has serious consequences and doesn't serve the national interest.

Immigration should serve both to preserve the well-being of the native-born and give opportunity to those who will advance the national interest - not special interests to the detriment of our fellow Americans.

*James R. Edwards Jr., co-author of 'The Congressional Politics of Immigration Reform,' is an adjunct fellow with the Hudson Institute.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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