Despite soft economy, a call for foreign tech workers

Since 1993, 48 foreign-born radical Muslims have been charged, convicted, or named as being involved in terrorism in the United States. None of them entered the country using an H1-B visa.

That's a relief to Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America. This lobbying group successfully fought in Congress three years ago to expand the number of foreign programmers and other skilled workers that high-technology companies could hire under the H1-B program.

At that time, the high-tech industry was booming. Mr. Miller held that there was a severe shortage of Americans to do the well-paid, computer-related work. So Indians, Taiwanese, South Koreans, Chinese, and other foreigners were essential to fill these posts.

Since then, the information technology industry (IT), especially its dotcom side, has suffered a sharp downturn. Last year, IT firms laid off 2.6 million workers and hired 2.1 million. The size of the IT workforce shrank from 10.4 million to 9.9 million.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of IT workers are jobless or work in other fields. Yet from Oct. 1, 2001, to March 30, 2002, employers applied to the Immigration and Naturalization Service to bring in 105,800 more foreign workers.

To Norman Matloff, a computer-science professor at the University of California, Davis, this hiring of foreigners is mostly unnecessary with so many Americans, including graduates in computer science, available.

To Mr. Matloff, it reflects the desire of high-tech companies to get cheaper and more malleable foreign workers. "The recession has given them more incentive to save money," he charges.

Matloff is wrong, Miller says. "The employer community is being very responsible. They did not abuse the program. This is not just a cheap-labor program."

This is an old issue these two protagonists debated a few years ago. It will get more attention next year when the H1-B legislation will come up again in Congress.

Otherwise, the national ceiling for H1-B visas will revert from the present 195,000 annual level to 65,000 in 2004.

Miller indicates he will seek continuation of the program at the 195,000 level. The IT industry, he says, has turned a corner and the demand for workers is bouncing back.

With the downturn in the industry, some laid-off H1-B employees have gone home. Others have sought sponsorship and work from another employer, as they are allowed to do. Some have found an American spouse, which makes it easier to get a green card for permanent residency. Others have been sponsored by their employers for a green card.

Paul Donnelly, a Hyattsville, Md., consultant on immigration, suspects at least 500,000 H1-B visa holders live in the US, many unemployed or underemployed.

The INS has indicated that it is not trying to track H1-B workers to see if they still have a job, or to send home those who are jobless.

Relevant to that decision, a study by the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington last month found that the 48 foreign radicals involved in terrorism since 1993 got into the US as students, tourists, or business travelers; sneaked across the border; stowed away on ships; used false passports; were illegal immigrants that were granted amnesty, applied for political asylum, or were already legal residents or Americans.

Again, none were H1-Bs.

"One shouldn't make too much of that," notes Miller, since any group of new arrivals could have some "bad actors" in it. But H1-B workers are "screened" by their employers for their education and other qualifications.

Under the law, employers hiring foreign tech workers under the H1-B program are supposedly unable to find Americans qualified to do the job. They also must pay H1-Bs prevailing wages.

Last year American firms brought in only 163,000 H1-B workers, less than the ceiling. Miller sees that as evidence that employers are not abusing the system.

"When the labor market is soft, the number [of H1-B applications] goes down," he says.

And few complaints have been taken to the Department of Labor about pay and benefits, he adds.

But to Mr. Donnelly and Matloff that position is exaggerated. Given the huge drop in IT job openings, the number of H1-B applications should have dropped far more, they say.

"There are more than plenty of eligible US workers on the market," says Jessie Garrehy, a veteran recruiter in Silicon Valley, now working for a tiny San Mateo startup, Cloudmark Inc. It plans to offer improved antispam software later this month.

As for pay, H1-B workers are taken advantage of, Donnely and Matloff say. If H1-Bs want to live permanently in the US, as most do, they depend on their employers to get them a green card – a process that costs $10,000 to $15,000 in legal fees. So employers can work them long hours, not grant pay hikes over the next few years, and refuse them stock options with relative impunity.

The equal-pay provisions of the law are "full of loopholes," says Matloff. "It is extremely well documented that H1-Bs are paid less," including findings of a National Research Council study.

"They are trapped," he says. "You get a subservient worker."

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